Russia’s Far East, the Modern World’s Closest Ecological Match to Pleistocene Georgia

Before I got distracted with last week’s blog entry about North American dholes, I meant to write about the ecology of Russia’s far east and how it may be the closest extant equivalent to that of the Pleistocene in southeastern North America.  Of course, there are many differences–the climate of Russia’s far east is more severe than Pleistocene Georgia’s.  I doubt temperatures ever dropped to -40 degrees F in Georgia, even in the mountains during extreme glacial phases.  And Russia’s far east lacks extra large beasts such as giant ground sloths and mammoths (elephants and rhinos used to live just south of the region).  However, it does host a remarkable diversity of large mammal species, and the environment is reminiscent of what covered the upper south in North America during the Pleistocene.  And until 100 years ago this ecosystem was relatively intact.  Unfortunately, the free market forces that control Russia now are rapidly degrading the environment here.

Siberian aka Amur tiger.  Notice how big they get.  This apex predator is the ecological equivalent of the Pleistocene age Smilodon and Panthera atrox  (see my July 2010 entry “Panthera atrox! What kind of Cat was it?”).  All photos in this entry found from google images.  Note: the original post had a picture of a Liger instead of a Siberian Tiger.  I couldn’t find a good photo of a Siberian tiger next to a human as a size comparison.  I reckon not too many people want to pose in a cage with a tiger.

A boreal forest, known as the taiga, dominates the northern region, and higher elevations of the mountains in the south.  It consists of Korean pine, spruce, larch, and fir.  Rocky alpine meadows are found at high elevations.  To the south and at lower elevations the boreal forest grades into a mixed Korean pine and Mongolian oak forest with many different species of plants such as birch, elm, maple, chestnut, walnut, bamboo, and wild kiwi vine.  The Pleistocene of southeastern North America was also much like this: boreal forest interspersed with meadows in the mountains, mixed pine and oak forest with canebrakes along the creeks in the piedmont.  Tigers and most of their prey widely utilize the mixed pine and oak forest, but merely travel through the boreal part of their range.  The temperate forest at lower elevations produces all the mast, the acorns and pine nuts, that potential prey such as deer and boar eat.

Sika deer. Note the spots.  Is there a close evolutionary relationship between this species and the American white-tail deer?

Musk deer.  Wow!  A fanged deer.

A ghoral–a type of goat antelope.

Russian wild boar killed in Texas.  Note the size.

Raccoon dog, not to be confused with the American raccoon.  This species is mostly a scavenger.

The list of animals that live here is impressive: Siberian tigers, leopards, lynx, wolves, dholes (formerly.  Dholes have been extirpated from the region), raccoon dogs, wolverines, brown bears, black bears, moose, elk, caribou, Sika deer, roe deer, musk deer, ghorals, wild boar; and along the coast, harbor seals.  Tigers eat them all.

Tigers vs. Bears and Wolves

It’s surprising to learn that bears (both black and brown) make up 5%-8% of the Siberian tiger’s diet.  Tigers use a technique that makes them kind of a quick knockout artist.  A tiger creeps up on a bear from behind some large object such as a boulder, and then leaps on top, quickly grabs under the chin, twists it, and bites through the spine, paralyzing the bruin instantly.  Incredibly, tigers may even lure bears by imitating their vocalizations.   It’s important for tigers to score a quick knockout over bears.  Eurasian brown bears are the same species as the American grizzly, and they weigh up to 1000 pounds.  They’ve been known to kill tigers in disputes over carcasses.

Although there are only 8 documented cases of tigers killing wolves, one study concluded that tigers depress wolf populations.  The scientists theorize tigers deliberately extirpate wolves, a rare case of one apex predator purposefully exterminating another.  Wolves are rare to absent in regions where tigers now range, but early in the twentieth century, they were common here.  This correlates with a decline in tiger populations then due to human hunting.  But the old Soviet Union decided to protect Siberian tigers.  As Siberian tiger populations rebounded, wolf populations almost disappeared completely from the region–packs are nonexistent.

This makes me wonder about predator interactions in Pleistocene North America.  How did saber-tooths, scimitar-tooths, giant panthers, jaguars, cougars, dire wolves, timber wolves, red wolves, dholes, and bears compete?  Did some species deliberately try to exterminate others? One study of bone chemistry from fossils found at Ranch La Brea concluded that saber-tooths, dire wolves, and giant panthers competed for the same prey.  I suppose populations of large carnivores fluctuated based on which was lucky enought to win interspecific encounters.  Others may have become more common by avoiding battles.  Anyway, it’s intriguing to think that a big cat may have kept dire wolf populations low in some areas of North America.  In the south dire wolves and jaguar fossils are the most commonly found of the large carnivores, suggesting they were the most abundant, and that they co-existed.  But all those other species did occur also, and they had an impact on each other that probably differed according to local conditions.

Tigers vs. Man

The people who live in the remote wilderness region where Siberian tigers still roam are very poor.  Most can only afford ancient, obsolete shotguns and rifles that will not kill a tiger immediately.  Siberian tigers are adapted to cold temperatures and are covered with thick hides and a layer of fat impervious to inadequate ammunition.  Nevertheless, hunters desperate for money will attempt to hunt tigers.  With low quality gear they occasionally wound a tiger, turning it into a man-eater.  Deaths and maulings are becoming more common.  On the other hand mafia-funded poachers with high powered rifles are decimating Siberian tiger populations–less than 400 remain in the wild.  Tigers are also known as Toyotas in Russia because they’re worth as much as a new car.  The Chinese think tiger parts are aphrodisiacs which is what gives the big cats such astounding monetary value.  Maybe the Chinese can be convinced that with the development of Viagra, they can now have a more proven and much cheaper way to increase their libidos, not that they need it (1 billion strong and growing).

A Review of Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Valliant

This book is the source for much of the information I wrote about above, though I did peruse some of the original scientific studies.  Mr. Valliant writes an excellent story in creative non-fiction style.  It’s based on a true account of Project Tiger’s determined effort to hunt and kill a man-eating tiger before it struck again.  The reader gets to intimately know the characters of those involved including the victims, the tiger hunters, and the tiger itself.  Vladimir Markov was a man with a sense of humor, popular with the townspeople, and not just some anonymous peasant eaten by a tiger.  Yuri Trush, a macho, tough but lenient warden leads the dangerous hunt for the man-eater.

Because of the subject matter, I would’ve read this book if it had been written by a constipated hack.  Much to my delight, Mr. Valliant’s writing style was as pleasing to my literary appetite as it was to my hunger for the subject matter.  For example he describes one subsistence hunter’s cabin as a “rhombus” because it was rectangular and tilted.

For natural history buffs this one is a must read.

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8 Responses to “Russia’s Far East, the Modern World’s Closest Ecological Match to Pleistocene Georgia”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    That photo is not a Siberian tiger but a tiger/lion hybrid. Unnaturally large, it’s the result of the genetic combination. As a hybrid, it’s sterile. Still, quite a sight.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Oops. Siberian tigers do get pretty big, though. The largest grow to 13 feet long from head to tail and to 500-600 pounds.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    Yes. And they do eat bears, although as you say, sometimes the bear eats the tiger.

  4. Ian T. Says:

    That’s a fantastic book – a great account of an unknown part of the world, with real insights into the people, tigers and the interactions between!

  5. Antal B Says:

    In the first picture is a liger not a siberian tiger . Liger is a hybrid lion/tiger and is the largest feline in the world .

    http://www.snopes.com/photos/animals/liger.asp
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liger

    Congratulations for your blog , outstanding !

  6. Ron Fleischhacker Says:

    how would tigers do in minnesota? or canada? I like how they curb wolf population…I wonder how they can surprise and kill them because of all the extra noses and eyes of the ”pack”..they must catch them sleeping or go to there dens and kill pups or young adult as they please. I do not think wolves would dare attack a tiger, they may try and harrass the tiger in the open country….but never get to close…I’m sure the hatred of the wolves comes from losing cubs in the dens. When moms away hunting…..I do not think any tiger could kill a large brown bear…like Bart ….maybe but those bears in Russa are smaller than here or Alaska…….super interesting to me

    • markgelbart Says:

      I’m sure tigers could survive in Minnesota and Canada, if people didn’t hunt them.

      Tigers are able to stalk bears and if they are down wind, the bears won’t be able to detect them until it is too late. The tiger jumps on their back and breaks their neck before the bear even has a chance to react. Tigers are one punch knockout artists, and they do kill large brown bears–this is fact no matter what you “think.” Some specific tigers learn to regularly hunt and kill bears.

      Buffon, a 19th century French naturalists, reported an encounter of a tiger and a bear that was different from modern observations. A tiger found a brown bear denning with cubs. The tiger dug a hole in the side of the den and went back and forth from the hole to the entrance terrorizing the mother bear and making her think there was more than one tiger. Finally, the bear stuck its head outside one of the entrances and the tiger killed her with one blow to the head, then killed her cubs.

      Eurasian brown bears are exactly the same species as North American brown bears and grow just as big.

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