Kuril Ridge, a pearl necklace of Russia

    Kuril Ridge, a pearl necklace of Russia

    • Dates: 2004, 2019, 2021-2022
    • Location: Iturup and Urup Islands.
    • Participants: E.A. Koblik, Senior researcher at the Zoological Museum, Moscow State University, ornithologist.
    • Funding: Russian Geographical Society, Expedition "Eastern Bastion—Kuril Ridge".


    The Kuril Islands are one of the most inaccessible places in our country. Only three southern islands – Kunashir, Shikotan, Iturup, and the northernmost Paramushir have a permanent population and more or less developed economic infrastructure. Scheduled ships and planes fly there from Sakhalin and Kamchatka. The rest of the Kuriles are, in fact, uninhabited, and some of them are more difficult to reach than many areas of the Arctic and Siberia far remote from civilization. It is not surprising that they are still poorly mastered by man, insufficiently studied by scientists, so they still conceal many surprises. Hence, there is an enormous interest of researchers of various specialties in this outpost of Russia on the Pacific Ocean.

    Stretching in a huge arc from Kamchatka to Japan, the Kuril Islands resemble beads that are strung on a thread of a transform fault in the oceanic crust between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. Each "bead" is a unique pearl of nature, with its own geographical, climatic and geological features, peculiar animal and plant realms. Pronounced volcanic activity, combined with very frequent weather disasters and the tireless work of sea waves, continue to form unique island landscapes and biocenoses, which are among the youngest on our planet. The waters washing the Kuriles are one of the most productive on Earth: large biological and mineral resources are concentrated here, which make up a considerable part of the national natural wealth of Russia.

    The landscapes of the Kuril Islands are not just beautiful – they are fascinating! Zigzags of mountains and cones of volcanoes rise, it would seem, directly from the stormy sea. Fields of fumaroles with gurgling liquid mud, bubbling "cauldrons" of boiling water, and sulfur vapors mixing with the clouds that came from the ocean— all this amazes the eye. The harsh, rugged rocky headlands of the coast are interspersed with the long beaches with black magnetic sand and quiet coves with the kelp algae. Along the steep coasts and on the rocks there are bird bazaars, and the layings of the seals and sea otters can be observed on the rocks below them, while fountains of the whales feeding on krill are seen in the nearby coastal sea. The dark crowns of the larch trees, shaped by constant winds, resemble fancy flags and tiered pagodas. Two-meter high thickets of bamboo are almost impassable, juicy grasses in conditions of a constantly humid climate and fogs grow to human height. In the transparent fast rivers, flashing are the backs of the salmon coming in shoals from the sea to spawn.

    The northern and southern species of animals and plants are found here in the bizarre combinations: the Siberian dwarf pine can coexist with the subtropical liana, whereas Arctic species of waders, gulls, and puffins meet with the crested kingfisher, a resident of the tropics. Under the water there is a real riot of colors and shapes of most diverse marine invertebrates—mollusks, echinoderms, crustaceans. A considerable part of the animals and plants of this region are not found anywhere else in Russia, and many species are listed in the Red Data Book and need protection.

    No less interesting are the milestones of human history here. Over the past 200 years, the islands have changed hands several times. They keep reminders of the first settlements of the Ainu and Nivkh, the Japanese period of the development of the Kuril Islands, and the "echo” of the last war in the form of rusty guns, planes, and tanks, together with other weapons and uniforms, both Russian, Japanese, and American. 

    The complex expedition "Eastern Bastion – Kuril Ridge" established by the Russian Geographical Society has been working on the islands for several seasons to combine the activities of search engines with the interests of zoologists and botanists, hydrobiologists and archaeologists, soil scientists and volcanologists, geologists and geomorphologists.

    The Kuril Islands have attracted ornithologists of the Zoological Museum for a long time. Firstly, the composition of the fauna for each island has not yet been specified, and this holds true not only for the birds (which of their species breed, which of them occur on migration and wintering, which are single vagrants), but also for the other terrestrial vertebrates, not to mention invertebrates. Secondly, it is a real biogeographic and evolutionary natural laboratory: the species change and form different geographical races according to the conditions of each island. Of special importance is that it is possible to estimate an approximate timing, directions, and circumstances of their arrival from other territories and dispersion along the chain of islands. A similar picture was observed by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Archipelago, and his observations constituted the basis for the elaboration of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

    In 2004, ornithologists of the Zoological Museum organized an expedition to Iturup, and a subsequent participation in the "Eastern Bastion – Kuril Ridge" expeditions to Iturup and Urup (2019, 2021-2022) allowed us to collect purposefully the very interesting materials on some species demonstrating noticeable ecological and geographical variability and to study them both by traditional and molecular genetic methods. As a result, several new bird subspecies were discovered, some new faunal records were made (concerning not only the birds, but also the bats), the certain seasonal phenomena were clarified, and the important observations of the phenological cycle and reproduction of the island birds were carried out. It is very important that these initial field works would continue on other islands, and we hope to participate in these expeditions in the future.


    E.A. Koblik,
    author's photo