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The steppe paradoxes

Source:  Baikal: the wonderland of live nature. - Ulan-Ude, 2001. - P. 81-101.

A glance at Lake Baikal from the soaring heights of outer space offers a panoramic view of jagged mountain ranges and a multitude of rivers meandering whimsically through the emerald seas of taiga, among marshes, meadows and Alpine tundras. But where are the steppes? Like small islands of monotonously brownish-yellow colour they stretch along big river valleys, and only in wide hollows do they sweep boundlessly, looking very much like vast flatland steppes.

However steppes are to be found not only in valleys but in the taiga belt and in the uplands too. They are the richest of all the Baikal country landscapes. Common here are about 750 out of 2300 flower plants thriving in these parts, some of which distantly related to the species distributed both in the European flatland steppes and in the Altai, Middle Asian and Manchurian highland steppes.

Steppes never look monotonous. Like a chameleon landscape, they change their appearance and colouring several times from spring to autumn. In spring they are jeweled with snowdrops and tiny tulips, in summer ‑ ablaze with coral lilies, yellow poppies, golden pea trees, pink crazyweed, thyme, and steppe cloves. By the mid- and late summer the steppe changes beyond recognition, with bristle crested wheat grass and silvery feather-grass in full bloom. Gleaming in the sun, feather-grass panicles with their long hard awns are slowly swaying in the wind as if in perpetual movement, like the waves of the sea, like a mountain stream. It's the time when the steppe can't leave anyone indifferent, the time when one can't look at it without rejoicing in its grandeur. The odours of flowering wormwood, thyme and meadowrue create a fantastic bouquet of steppe fragrance at sunset when the golden rays of the sun awaken the first skylarks.

The steppe is a surprisingly 'tempered' type of landscape adapting to the permanently changing environmental conditions. It can be cold, like in the tundra, and hot, like in the desert, piecing winds suddenly abating there in the deafening still. Grass, softly rustling in the wind today, can crunch with its brittle stems tomorrow. Ecologists call the steppes 'a landscape with a choleric temperament'.

And last of all, the steppe is the most ancient and the youngest type of landscape at one and the same time. Distant predecessors of our sandy, salty steppes were moulded in the desert landscapes of the Pliocene (more than three million years ago), while the mountain motley- grass steppes were formed only yesterday, from the view point of geological history, on the subglacial plains of the Pleistocene (about a hundred thousand years ago). The steppes occupy very little place among boundless taiga expanses, but they are invaluable: they are not just rich pastures, or regions producing bread, but they are an immense variety of life forms, the sole and historical memory of the peoples inhabiting Baikal's shores.

The steppes in the Transbaikal hollows (Bargusin, Jida, etc.) usually bear resounding names of the valleys of the rivers whose numerous tributaries cover the vast lowlands and foothills like a delicate net. The most highly elevated (1200‑1500 meters above the sea level) are the Mondine steppes along the Irkut River, the most low-lying are the Bargusin steppe islands situated at the altitude of 350‑ 700 meters. The steppes in the depressions between mountains appear to be fragments of the former vast steppe plain that stretched for thousands kilometers from the Hungarian steppes in the west to the Manchurian prairies in the east. Especially striking are feather-grass steppes. It's not by chance that they became the emblem of Eurasian steppes. Though our feather-grasses are not as fluffy as their European counterparts, they are extremely beautiful. One of them is Krilov's feather-grass referring to the family of hair-like feather-grasses. Unlike European feather-grasses Baikal feather-grasses can stand extreme cold and draught. Their leaves are short and bristly, the sods are thick and compact. In the whole, they are ideally adapted to the severe conditions of Central Asian steppes. Common here is a low bush - dwarf pea tree, giving the feathergrass growths a colourful Mongolian look. Especially picturesque are these steppes at the time of pea tree flowering, when numerous bright-yellow flowers cluster the tops of its golden shoots. To our great sorrow feather-grass steppe area is decreasing in Transbaikal, the steppes disappearing forever, giving way to plough-lands and to overgrazed spaces changed beyond recognition. Outstanding among the flatland steppes are the relict desert steppes reminding us of the times when the Transbaikal region was dried up and the representatives of the cold deserts of Central Asia reached as far as Olkhon Island. Among them are the strips of winterfat and shingle feather-grass steppes. These elements of former ecosystems, strikingly different from the surroundings, exist side by side with patches of pine forests.

And yet, Transbaikal steppes are, first and for most, mountain steppes and are an indispensable element of a complex and contrasting forest-steppe landscape. Nowhere in Eurasia is there such a variety of forest-steppe landscapes as can be found in East Transbaikal: birch, elm, pine, larch, poplar and even oak trees grow there. These wonderful creations of Nature vividly demonstrate the ancient ties of Transbaikal with the natural complexes of the contiguous areas. Thus, our birch forest-steppe is related to the European-West-Siberian forest-steppes. In motley-grass meadow steppes, alternating with birch groves, there dominate not only such steppe plants as meadow-grass (Poa botryoides), junegrass, cinquefoil (Potentilla bifurca), but meadow and forest species too: meadow-grass (Poa angustifolia), smooth bromegrass, greater burnet, martagonlily, tansy-leaved wormwood, etc. Wild-growing apricot and Russian almond thickets in the elm forest-steppe testify to its genetic relation to the Man-churian flatland landscape. As if substantiating these East-Asiatic ties, the elm forest-steppes are rich in Dahurian steppe motley-grass: Fisher's scabiosa, Dahurian lespedeza and Baikal skullcap. However, the most characteristic of Transbaikal is a pine forest-steppe in combination with stony low motley-grass, tansy and sheep's fescue steppes. Plants of original pillow-like form: Eremogone capillaris, Chamaerhodos altaica, Arctogeron gramineum, rock jasmine and others give these steppes a peculiar character. Common there are high-mountain species of plants: Alpine aster, edelweiss and Eremogone formosa, thus substantiating the fact that the above mentioned plants grow in cold conditions of the extreme continental climate.

Outstanding among them are low motley-grass steppes on mountain range crests and hillocks, and on cobble rock streams. Pillow-like small bushes of Arctogeron and Chamaerhodos prevail in the herbage. It's only in these steppes that crazyweed, Khorinsk milk vetch, and Buryat onion can be found. Dominating in the rare and rathei interesting steppe communities are mountain moss, Patren's gypsophilia, fetid meadowrue and Gmelin's witchgrass.

Very often forest margins are zones not just overgrowr with black-fruited cotoneaster, prickly rose and Spiraei aquilegifolia brushwood, but are also rich in motley-gras: meadow steppes covered with thorowax, yellow bedstraw Siberian milkwort, lupine clover, tansy-leaved cinquefoi and clustered bell-flower. Flowering glades with patche of shrub-wood, sprinkled over the slopes here and there often alternate with pine stands, and such landscape is on of the most typical scapes in the steppe Transbaikal.

No less interesting is North Transbaikal forest-stepp. Larch forests with grass layer prevail here, and dominai ing in the steppe are not only draught-resistant meadow grass (Poa attenuata), Lena fescue, but also cold-resistai sedge and Kobresia filifolia. Such unusual combinatioi can be accounted for by the influence of the frozen grour of many years standing. Presence of some species of Alpine vegetation (rockfoil, edelweiss, snow-white cinquefoil and northern wormwood) in the grass-stand brings the forest-steppes closer to the Alpine steppes of Central Asia. The forest belt of the South Transbaikal mountain zone, except the dominating here forest, marsh and meadow vegetation and various kinds of shrub-wood, incorporates small patches of the steppe vegetation to be found on the sunlit slopes of mountain ranges, along small river glens and gently sloping trenches between the mountains. Steppe «iuburs» (an apt name given by Buryats) are picturesque flower-beds surrounded by the forest. The lavish herbage of these steppes, alongside with steppe grasses and sedges, incorporates such bright meadow-steppe and forest species as martagon lily, snowdrop anemone, yellow day lily, superb pink, bell-flowerlike crazyweed, hybrid milkwort, low meadowrue, big-leaved gentian, yellow iris, etc. They are often overgrown with prickly rose, Kuril tea bush, oriental spirea, Siberian barberry; and their pink, yellow and snow-white flowers add to the beauty of the wonderful, flowering slopes.

The steppes, covering the slopes of the driest and continental mountains of Transbaikal, reach the Alpine belt. The cold steppes of South Transbaikal highlands are undoubtedly the most flamboyant, and it is not by chance that they are called Alpine steppes. Big flowers of fluffy milk vetches, golden-yellow poppies, sky-blue gentians, azure-lilac crazyweed, snow-white buds of minuartia create a primeval, refined in its severe beauty, Alpine steppe landscape. Remarkable too are Siberian and Mongolian endemics: Saus-surea leycophylla, runt onion, etc. Abundance of various bushy and cristose lichens, different species of Island moss, cladonia and parmelia gives the mountains a look of cold severity. Their small-mosaic colour scheme is unique in its beauty. The main variety of Alpine cold steppes can be found in the dry mountain ranges of Inner Asia (the Pamirs, Tien-Shan, Altai and Tibet). In Baikal Siberia they are represented only by small patches of Krilov's sheep's fescue, meadow-grass and motley-grass steppes. These steppes represent a unique model of live nature where the great marvel of Nature ‑ moulding of new types of steppe ecosystems - unfolds itself before us.

Wonderfully varied is the steppe fauna of the Baikal countryside. It has much in common with the Mongolian Animal Kingdom. But it has to be mentioned that most of its representatives inhabit the northern, outlying parts of the area.

All the classes of vertebrates are represented in the Animal Kingdom of the area. Far away from water bodies, in the dry steppes of South Transbaikal, one can come across the only steppe species of amphibias ‑ the Mongolian toad. In the day-time the toad hides from the heat in rodents' and piping hares' burrows, under stones or finds other shelters. When the sun sets, it leaves the shelter in search of different ground insects. In mid-May or early in June a great instinct ‑ the instinct of spawning ‑ awakens and the toads get together in shallow ponds, bayous or temporary puddles rich in submerged plants. In the evening and all through the night the toads' chorus can be heard from far away: the males are giving concerts. In one or two months young amphibias will leave the water-bodies and set out in different directions in search of new habitats. Only a few will be lucky enough to return next spring to their native ponds to spawn, for most of the younglings will perish during their first year of life.

It is very rarely that one can meet in the steppes and forest-steppes of Transbaikal individuals of two species of reptiles: Mongolian lizard and copperhead. The agile and swift lizard does not find it very difficult to run away and hide from its enemies among the stones in the steppe, but the copperhead, well as it might be protected by its venomous teeth, is very often not as lucky when meeting a human being. In the last decades this beautiful snake has decreased in number considerably.

The most conspicuous in the steppe and forest-steppe are birds. There are over thirty species of them here. They add liveliness and beauty to the somewhat cheerless, for an unaccustomed person, steppe expanses. Beautified with warbles, trills and modulations, here comes, resounding from the skies, the song of the skylark. The Mongolian skylark doesn't want to yield. And the song of the small skylark, even though not as melodious, is pleasing to the ear nonetheless. The shore lark is not going to compete with anyone, it is singing its song, sounding very much like a soft murmur of a brook, in undertones, without flying high up in the sky. He has no use of any 'contest' because in the dry, stony steppes there seems to be no singer better than he, his other near relatives dwelling elsewhere. Though skilled singers, the steppe and Transbaikal pipits cannot compete with skylarks either. But for these gray, with brownish pale-yellow hues in their plumage, birds ‑ sky-larks and pipits ‑ the steppe would be almost silent, though chirring of different grasshoppers would certainly remind one of life existing there.

Everyone, who has ever wandered in the steppe, is likely to remember looking around in the hope of spotting the little imp-whistler that hailed him with his shrill whistle and finding, in the long ran, a tiny yellow-brownish bird ‑ Isabeline wheatear. Having bowed several times to the traveler, it suddenly rockets up, fluttering with its wings. It can skillfully mock other birds and even wild animals, supplementing the performance with its own peculiar modulations and bell-like sounds. Having come down to the earth again it suddenly disappears whisking into the nearest gopher's or piping hare's burrow. It turns out that it dwells there and its offsprings are safely protected from the alert eyes of predators.

Except Isabeline wheatear there thrives in the steppe rock outcrops its near relation ‑ the Wheatear. The bird is more graceful than the Isabeline wheatear, but it cannot sing this well, and nests more often in rocks, though sometimes it is made to hatch eggs in a burrow.

True steppe inhabitants are the Demoiselle crane and the Bustard ‑ the biggest bird in Asia. These birds are seldom to be met in spring and in summer, but in autumn in some places, in the valley of the Tugnui River for example, one can enjoy a wonderful sight ‑ flocks of dozens or even hundreds of cranes. The stately birds congregate, before leaving, to say good-bye to their native places. Dozens ofbustards, looking like a flock of fattened sheep, are feeding right here in the field. To watch demoiselle cranes and bustards in such great numbers is a real piece of luck, and the picture sticks in one's memory for life. To our great sorrow bustards are decreasing in number nowadays, for ploughing of the steppes has diminished their habitat drastically.

Casting a glance at the sky you can, if you are happy enough, catch sight of a dark dot high above. It's either a Steppe eagle or an Imperial eagle, gliding overhead. From the soaring hights, quietly wheeling above the vast steppe, he is looking for his prey with those alert eyes of his. Seeing a gopher or a young tarbagan (it is not so heavy), putting his wings together, the eagle falls down at it like a stone,  and the careless little beast falls his prey. But it often happens that the predator misses or is late for his prey. More adapted to hunting animals in open spaces, the Steppe eagle can resort to a different hunting method too. He waylays his prey sitting patiently at the burrow sometimes for hours on end. But there are fewer and fewer of these strong and proud birds nowadays, and therefore both the species have been entered into the International and Regional Red Data Books.

A peculiar realm of birds exists at the foot of mountains in shrub steppes and forest-steppe stretches. Quite suddenly, right from under the feet with a sharp noise there flitters a bearded partridge, scaring the musing traveler.

Partridges are wonderfully adapted to shrub steppes. They run so fast and so noiselessly in the grass and bushes that it is next to impossible to spot them. And the nestlings, just fresh hatchings, feeling danger, lie down on the earth merging at once with the background. It so happens sometimes that standing right over the chick and knowing for sure it is here, you can not spot it. And once again, in the umpteenth time, you marvel at the wisdom of Nature.

Sometimes in a bushtop there appears from nowhere in particular a small reddish bird looking like a predator. It is a Lesser shrike ‑ a red-tailed Zhulan. Actually, it is a predator, but it feeds on big insects. Sitting in the bush, it looks out for the prey, and then pouncing on it quickly, catches it. It has to repeat the action several times a day to feed the female, hatching eggs in the nearby bushes, and later on, her and five or six varacious hatchlings. The birds are very aggressive and can peck the bird-watcher on the head if he is too bothersome while inspecting their nest.

Higher, on the steppe-covered slopes, overgrown with thick bushes and strewn with stones, one can see meadow buntings and Godlevski's buntings. Natives of the Tibetan fauna, they are distributed here sporadically. Godlevski's buntings favour only steep slopes, strewn with big stones, while meadow buntings prefer more gentle slopes, but with a rich grass cover. Other kinds of birds are scarce in such places. Sometimes Northern wheatears make their nests here in the stones, decorating the not so attractive place with their contrast black and white colouration. A brightly coloured hoopoe, when in danger, opens up its fan-shaped crest, sniffing like a cat.

High up in the steppe hilltops, in rock outcrops and in cliffs, near water-bodies, there dwell Dahurian daws, mar-tels and lesser kestrels. The three species coexist very happily, each minding its own business. Daws fly to the steppe to hunt ground insects, martels catch their prey in the air, and kestrels' prey is mainly small rodents of the mice kind. In big rocks martlet colonies number over a thousand individuals, daw colonies contain several dozen of birds, but the kestrel, more often than not, nests in solitary pairs.

Of no less interest are the animals inhabiting the steppes of Transbaikal. There are over twenty species of them. The Dahurian hedgehog thrives in the South. It is one of the rarest of the species and the least studied one at that. Some people erroneously believe that hedgehogs feed on fruit. Where can there be fruit in the steppe? Actually, they often catch different insects and even hunt small animals. In captivity hedgehogs are rather unpretentious about their diet, they relish meat and vegetable food. But it is not recommended to have a hedgehog as a pet, as this night animal will be quite a nuisance, and soon you'll have a strong desire 'to present' it to somebody.

Two representatives of hares thrive in the South Transbaikal steppes: the Tolai hare and the Dahurian piping hare. The Tolai hare, one of the rare animal species, unlike the Alpine hare, has a gray 'winter coat' on all the year round. If late in summer or in autumn you see accurately made haystacks in the steppe, you must know it's the doing of the small animals ‑ 'haystack makers' (as piping hares are called locally). Their labours are rewarded; in winter piping hares can be carefree, for their stock will last them through the winter, and other herbivorous animal will be able to use some of it too. These small animals have one more peculiarity ‑ they can sing. Their long rolling trills carry far away across the steppe, and it is hard to guess that it is not a bird, but someone else singing.

Who doesn't know the Alaskan ground squirrel, one of the most common representatives of the squirrel family? It does look like a squirrel, but the colouration gives away the fact that it is a steppe dweller and its biology is adapted to the steppe conditions. Here, in the steppe knolls, thriving in colonies is another species of the same family ‑ the Mongolian marmot, or tarbagan (as it is called locally). Tarbagans are hard to approach unnoticed, their guards always on the alert. In no time does their shrill barking warn the whole colony of your presence, and the cautious animals disappear in a fraction of a moment. They spend their life in deep underground labyrinths and more than half of it in hibernation. Gophers are also fond of sleeping. Like Mongolian marmots, they sleep from October till the end of March. These very conspicuous day animals make the dry and sometimes faded in the sun Transbaikal steppes look more lively.

In the day-time many of the steppe animals keep away from the sun and are therefore inconspicuous, but at dusk the situation changes dramatically. The jerboa (the steppe champion jumper) comes up to the surface. The one, who sees it for the first time, is struck by its very peculiar way of running on its hind twos, by its sharp switchbacks and turns. Its short front legs, when it runs fast, do not touch the ground, but its long tail with a brash at its end helps him a great deal. Thanks to it, the jerboa can turn at a sharp angle at full speed, which makes it very hard for the predator to catch up with such a runner, for under his nose he can turn aside, while the pursuer, under its own momentum, runs right ahead, just past its prey.

The small burrows with a vertical entrance belong tc hamsters. Three species of them thrive in Transbaikal Barabinsk, Transbaikal and Jungar hamster. Late in summer and all through the autumn they are untiringly layinj in their winter stock of seeds and roots. Having filled it cheek sacks with the best of the seeds the hamster hurrie to its underground chamber where, in the most accurate manner, it puts them together. All through the winter colds, the hard toiling animal stays in its burrow, seldom going up to the surface.

Chinese field mice are wonderful little animals too. These dwellers of the underground labyrinths live in big colonies. They dig up chambers and burrows of complicated construction with multiple passages, some hundred meters long. The colony is quite conspicuous from above because of the numerous mounds and holes ‑ air-vents. The animals seldom come up to the surface. They feed on underground parts of plants, and their colonies settle, therefore, where there is abundance of big steppe plants, to the roots of which they dig their underground passages.

All these animals: piping hares, gophers, jerboas, hamsters, field mice, sand voles and others attract many ground predators. They fall prey to the corsac fox and its near relatives ‑ the red fox, the steppe polecat, solongoi, badger and Pallas's cat, each of the predators having its own way of hunting. If the polecat and the solongoi can penetrate into marmots' burrows- and find the masters there, the Pallas's cat, like a true cat, waylays or stalks its prey. He is especially fond of hunting piping hares. The corsac fox catches small rodents and rodents of the hare kind only on occasion, for, as a general rule, it feeds on carrion. A lot of bones and skins of the fallen animals lie in heaps near its burrow. Foxes catch their prey in different ways: middle-sized animals stalk their prey and attack it, but, more often, pick up rodents and birds while making the round of their territory. In winter, when the snow is deep, foxes hunt mice. Much has been written about this original way of hunting. Badgers, with their strong paws, dig rodents' burrows and catch their inhabitants right in their own dwellings. Yet, the badger is omnivorous. It feeds on roots and seeds, ravages birds' nests and catches small animals. Hard and varied is the life of the steppe animals.

The steppes are of great economic importance. Their use as pastures has deep-rooted and long traditions. However, their mismanagement and misuse and the fact that traditional experience has been neglected for decades have resulted in their dramatic degradation and, locally, to a complete transformation of the steppe ecosystems. It is necessary to awaken people's ecological awareness, to make them treat our steppes, these unique natural phenomena, still existing among the boundless expanses of the Siberian taiga, as universal sacred things.



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