Estonia's unique biological inventory

  • 2005-04-13
  • By Alec Charles
Tallinn - Spring, at last, is in the air, as are the birds, the bees and the butterflies of the Baltic states. Estonians are already seizing the opportunity to renew their love affair with the natural world, a relationship epitomized by the ostrich farmer who made international headlines when, on Valentine's Day, he presented his wife with a pair of kangaroos.

"I feel like a queen," she told the world's press. "How many women have kangaroos at home to remind them how nice life is?"

Estonia's first nature reserve was founded in 1910 on the island of Saaremaa. Its first eco-law was adopted in 1935, but Soviet occupation soon curtailed this plan. In 1958 Estonia passed further legislation, the first in the Soviet Union, to protect its wildlife. The Estonian Fund for Nature was established in 1991.

"Habitat protection should be one of the main tasks of nature conservation," says Eerik Leibak, the EFN's conservation expert. "The pollution of nature with genetically modified organisms will probably be a real threat in the future."

Today, 565 species are protected, as is more than 10 percent of the land. This focus on the natural environment has prompted a whole slew of discoveries. In 1992 alone, nine new types of mushroom were unearthed on the islands of Vormsi and Saaremaa.

The third millennium was heralded by the discovery of a new species of cyst-forming nematode worm. In 2001, the nation's ornithologists enjoyed their first views of the American widgeon, the white-tailed plover, the sharp-tailed sandpiper and the rufous-tailed shrike. The following year, Blyth's pipit was added to their lists. In 2003, an undocumented species of carabid beetle was revealed beneath a pile of seaweed on a sandy island beach, and last year, an obscure breed of microzepid fly was reported for the first time.

Just last month, a farmer stumbled upon a 'rat king''s sixteen rats living as one with their tails intertwined. This is an extraordinarily rare phenomenon as only 58 have ever been reported, including three in Estonia. A similar anomaly has also occurred, on even fewer occasions, with squirrels.

Sadly, the farmer was unaware of the significance of his find, and rashly dispatched the grotesque gestalt.

The butterfly effect

Over the past five years, twenty new kinds of butterflies and large moths have been added to Estonia's inventory of macrolepidoptera, bringing the total number to more than 900. Five were discovered only last year.

"A rich community of butterflies and moths indicates sites in which wildlife is doing well," says Toomas Tammaru of Tartu's Institute of Zoology and Botany. "It's nice to see them around."

Tammaru was recently involved in the first Estonian observations of the lesser-spotted pinion moth and the shoulder stripe moth. The former flutters round the elm trees of Europe and Asia during the late summer months. The latter flies through European forests and scrubland in the early spring. With a wingspan of a few centimeters, this fawny dryad is easily identified by its shoulder-height stripes. Its caterpillars feed gloriously upon the wild roses of the woods.

"The importance of lepidoptera is their value in indicating the state of the environment," Tammaru says. "Their populations respond quickly to change. Many recent colonizations of Estonia by new species are probably connected to global warming."

"Since 1995, the invasion of southern species has become more active," adds Jaan Viidalepp, a moth taxonomist at the Tartu institute. He conjectures that within 15 years, the Estonian ecosystem could resemble the temperate steppes of Ukraine.

Natural selection

If insects aren't your thing, there's an impressive array of other fauna coming soon to a forest near you. Climate change has led to the northern spread of the freshwater terrapin through Latvia, and its arrival in Estonia is expected in the imminent future. The region has also recently seen the arrival of the Chinese Mitten Crab and the Amur Sleeper Fish.

Another new feature is a furry little critter called the beech marten, a cousin of the otter and the mink. It likes to crawl under car hoods at night in order to snuggle up against the still-warm engines, and unfortunately also tends to gnaw away at the vehicle's electrical cables. In Germany this habit is already causing motorists major grief.

"German car companies have put huge investments into trying to solve the problem," says Tiit Maran, conservation officer at Tallinn Zoo. "The Estonian martens are starting to do the same thing."

But global warming isn't always a boon to biodiversity. The shrinking of the winter ice in the Baltic Sea has had a catastrophic effect upon its population of ringed seals.

"The seal delivers its pups on the ice, and its birthing grounds are disappearing," says Maran.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Estonia's leading science writer Tiit Kandler points out that a combination of warmer climates and open borders has led farmers and gardeners to introduce exotic plants that are overwhelming the native greenery. Kandler also warns that municipal policies are encouraging people to build rural, lakefront and seaside homes. "These ecosystems are very important and very fragile," he says.

More than half of Estonia's forests are owned by the state.

"Once the state has sold off everything else, there may be pressure to sell off the forests," Kandler adds.

Kandler lives 20 kilometers south of Tallinn, on the edge of one of Europe's northernmost oak forests. The local authority has already started cutting back the bushes.

"We say, 'What are you doing? The birds don't have anywhere to nest,'" he explains. "They say, 'Really? We're just trying to help.'"

Despite Estonia's long-held love of the natural environment, and despite the best efforts of conservationists and biologists, it seems that economic and administrative caprice is fast undermining the nation's most valued resource.