In the current renewal of interest in global biodiversity, the complex and threatened floras and faunas of tropical regions of the world have received considerable attention. In contrast, certain temperate and boreal biotas have been ignored, despite high biotic diversity, the absence of basic taxonomic information, and the threat of plant and animal extinctions. Of all such northern regions, the islands of the Kuril Archipelago probably stand out most as being "biologically unknown" and, at the same time, in danger of over exploitation. A chain of more than 56 islands, the system is only slightly smaller than the Hawaiian Islands, covering an area of 15,600 square km and providing 2,409 km of coastline. Stretching 1,200 km between Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, and the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka (from 43 to 51 degrees N latitude), the Kurils divide the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean and form the northern extension of an insular arc that originates in the Ryukyu and Mariana archipelagos to the south and continues as the Aleutian Islands to the north and east. All of the Kurils are volcanic in origin, ranging in age from Upper Cretaceous to Late Pleistocene; each island has its own unique geological and biological history. Substantial opportunities for in situ diversification are provided by great distances between the islands and mainland source biotas and by significant barriers to plant and animal dispersal (e.g., deep channels between islands, associated with strong ocean currents).

Location of the Kuril Archipelago (red) in the Western North Pacific Ocean.

The geographic remoteness and inaccessibility of the Kurils (Russian publications refer to the islands as "the end of the world"; e.g., Pushkar, 1960: 172; Shurtakov, 1962: 12, 1971: 114), combined with extreme environmental conditions, have discouraged human visitation. Storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tidal waves; blistering winter winds alternating with impenetrable summer fogs; ravenous swarms of mosquitoes and foul smelling masses of floating seaweed all have contributed to make the Kuril Archipelago one of the least known corners of the earth (Stephan, 1974: vii, 11-12).

Although described historically as "hideous," "uninhabitable," "fog-smothered and noxious," made up of nothing but "dreary rocks, destitute of verdure" (e.g., La Perouse, 1799: 68), the Kurils offer a spectacular ruggedness that is difficult to match. Located along one of the most volatile sections of the Pacific "rim of fire," the Kurils contain over 100 volcanos, 39 of which are currently active (some emitting a constant flow of lava, others producing periodic explosions and violent ejections of toxic gases, ash, and molten rock). Hot beaches, where local residents cook food in the sand, hot springs, boiling crater lakes, and bubbling fields of sulfur, contrast strikingly with deep hidden fjords, glassy crater lakes, dense virgin forests of silver fir, and giant grasses, including wild bamboo (Milne, 1879: 340; Efremov, 1951: 38, 46, 145; Stephan, 1974: 12, 17; pers. obs., July-August 1994).

Klyucherskaya Sopka in eruption, Kamchatka Peninsula.

Climatically, the various parts of the Kuril Archipelago are highly variable. The northernmost islands of the arc (e.g., Shumshu and Paramushir) are almost Arctic, while the southern islands (Kunashir and Iturup) contain pockets that are nearly subtropical. Consequently the flora of the islands is variable as well. Extending over eight degrees of latitude, the arc is divided into distinct botanical zones (Stephan, 1974: 17). Tundra dominates in the northern zone (Shumshu to Shiashkotan), with only a scattering of stunted pines, birches, and assorted scrub. The central zone (Lovushki to Simushir) has the poorest vegetation, some of the smaller members consisting of little more than rocky protuberances that support only lichens, mosses, and a few species of bushes. The southern zone (Urup to Kunashir and the Habomais) possesses a relatively rich flora due to warm ocean currents and abundant rainfall; in addition to coniferous and mixed forests of birch and spruce, there are linden, ash, oak, and maple trees in protected pockets.

Plants normally associated with more temperate regions make unexpected appearances on the southern Kurils. Shikotan is partly covered with rich deciduous forests, with an abundance of raspberries, strawberries, apples, and nuts. Wild bamboo, attaining a height of 4 m, grows nearly everywhere on Iturup and Kunashir. Magnolia trees bloom every summer on Kunashir. Silvervine (Actinidia), normally found only in the tropics, and giant parasol-shaped plants (Angelica ursina) populate the lush recesses of Iturup and Kunashir.

IKIP 1995 expedition party in forest on Kunashir, with Michael S. Yamashita, photographer,
and Charles E. Cobb, writer, on assignment with the National Geographic Society.

Very little published information can be found on the fauna of the Kurils; general statements about the larger mammals, marine birds, and commercially important fishes (salmon and cod) and crustaceans (king crab) are the only exceptions. Brown bears, wolves, squirrels, and snowshoed hares inhabit the larger islands. Tens of thousands of sea otters, fur seals, and sea lions once populated the chain, but today only small colonies exist on the central islands. The literature records more than 170 species of birds (but some unpublished estimates are as high as 280; see "Rationale and Scope--Birds"). Island rivers seasonally overflow with salmon, and offshore waters support abundant populations of cod, mackerel, and ocean perch. King crab from Kunashir and Iturup are still harvested in large quantities.

Although the general outlines of the flora and fauna of the Kurils can be summarized (as has been done above), more detailed information is nonexistent or unpublished; what little is published is confined to the Russian and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese scientific literature. Little systematic collecting has ever been done, and since the close of World War II, no non-Russian biologists have done any work of significance. With the exception of a few Russian collections (e.g., those of the various institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences at Vladivostok, Magadan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk), museum samples of plants and animals originating from the Kurils are unavailable and frozen tissues are completely non-existent (whole samples and tissues collected by us in the southern Kurils in July and August 1994 are a notable exception). The biota is a mix of Japanese, Kamchatkan, and endemic species, but the biodiversity of the islands, relative to each other and to the mainland, is unknown. Limited coastal regions of several of the larger, more strategically positioned islands have been heavily impacted since the close of World War II by the construction of Russian military installations and the more recent growth of fishing villages but, otherwise, the islands remain undisturbed (pers. obs., July-August 1994). Only six are currently inhabited.

Politically, the Kuril Islands have been for decades the focus of bitter dispute between Japan, the Former Soviet Union, and now the Russian Republic. The Archipelago was originally settled by the Russians, following its exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1855, however, Japan seized a group of the southern islands and in 1875 took possession of the entire chain. In 1945, as part of the Yalta agreements, the islands were ceded to the Soviet Union, and the Japanese population was repatriated and replaced by Soviets. Japan still claims historical rights to the four southernmost islands (which they call the Northern Territories) and although the Soviet Union and Japan normalized relations in 1956, the dispute over the Kurils has prevented the signing of a peace treaty between the two nations. The controversy presently stands as the primary stumbling block to Russia's recent bid for much needed financial assistance from Japan.

The current unstable political situation, particularly as it affects the "disputed" southern Kurils, makes this a crucial time to carry out a detailed survey of the biota of these islands (see "Rationale and Scope-- Urgency").

Copyright © University of Washington Fish Collection.