Author Archive

How Impossible, Actually, Is the Dinosaur DNA Splicing in Jurassic World?

Well, there’s just one problem: Dinos are not like strawberries. In the case of GMO crops, we’re talking about isolating one gene that codes for one specific trait. In the case of Jurassic World, we’re talking about traits that involve hundreds of genes. Take camouflage, the trait that (spoiler alert!) so surprises the Indominus rex’s trainers. Blending in with your surroundings requires tweaks to neural genes, skin genes, hormonal genes, temperature sensitivity genes. “It’s likely a whole suite of genes,” says Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.

In other words, it’s not a simple matter of genetic cut-and-pasting. “When genomes evolve, they don’t do so in isolation,” says Shapiro. “They do so in the background of the entire genome.” Many of the genes you’re messing with are pleiotropic—that is, they code for several different characteristics. And it’s not like all of them are located in one place; they’re distributed all over the genome. You start to appreciate the difficulty. Shapiro compares the challenge to trying to swap out an elephant’s forelegs for wings. “I can’t cut out a wing gene, insert into an elephant and assume I’m going to get an elephant with wings,” she told me, not without a touch of exasperation. “There is no wing gene.”

There’s a bigger reason this wouldn’t work. Though we’ve sequenced hundreds of animal genomes, we still don’t know exactly how each one functions as a whole. You might say we have the vocabulary to describe the language of biology, but we haven’t yet mastered the grammar. As DeSalle puts it: “We’ve had the chicken genome sequences for a decade now—and we still don’t know chickenshit about it.”

Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner has spent his career trying to reconstruct a dinosaur. He’s found fossils with extraordinarily well-preserved blood vessels and soft tissues, but never intact DNA. So, in a new approach, he’s taking living descendants of the dinosaur (chickens) and genetically engineering them to reactivate ancestral traits — including teeth, tails, and even hands — to make a “Chickenosaurus”.

Dino-Chicken: Wacky But Serious Science Idea of 2011

LiveScience: So if you could bring a dinosaur back — the real thing, not a modified chicken — what species would you choose?

Horner: A little one. A little plant-eater.

LiveScience: No T. rex for you?

Horner: Would you make something that would turn around and eat you? Sixth-graders would do that, but I’d just as soon make something that wouldn’t eat me. And you could have it as a pet without worrying about it eating the rest of your pets.

What strange art will the inheritors of Earth make from the remnants of our technological society? What amazing collaborations could we make today that might help ward off such a collapse? Broadening our perspective. Expanding our concept of the-world-for-us further towards the-world-without-us.

Monkey Selfies:



Elephant Selfie:


These ads are just the slightest imaginings of what else is to come:

And so we march Towards an Atemporal Republic of Humanity

Xenocyon – that great mystery canid of the Pleistocene. There’s continued debate about what genus Xenocyon actually fits into: many consider it to be a canid, while others classify both X. falconeri and the earlier X. lycanoides to be the true ancestor of today’s ferocious yet beautiful African Hunting DogLycaon pictus.

It may be that our understanding of the genus Canis is a little too simplistic, and needs a little revision to include creatures such as Cynotherium, Lycaon and of course Xenocyon, which in appearance was likely somewhere between a hyena and a wolf. Weighing between 30 and 40 kg, with a wide and broad head, Xenocyon was not to be messed with. The fangs alone indicated a robust, hypercarnivorous creature roughly the size of a wolf, perhaps a bit bigger in some cases, and a superb predator. If they were indeed the ancestors of the African Hunting Dog, then their hunting pack techniques would have been savage, relentless – and successful. Sadly, we don’t know if these muscular dogs were beautifully speckled and painted like L. pictus, or if they had coats of one colour, more akin to a wolf or dhole.

It is not surprising these canids reached pretty much the top of the food-chain and were found across Eurasia, Europe and even North America during the Mid-Pleistocene. Fossils have been found as far east as Japan, at the Tama River just outside Tokyo, with specimens also found at Westbury in Britain. However, more plentiful fossils have been found in Untermassefeld in Germany and across Italy and Spain. There are even a few specimens in North America, although some believe they never quite got a grip on the landscape due to competition from the larger and heavier Canis dirus.

So, how did Xenocyon spp manage to be so widespread that they ruled Europe and Eurasia with a paw of iron? Well, most of it is probably due to climate fluctuations on the boundary of the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epochs.  We know now that there have been regular periods of glaciation, thaws and reglaciation, long before humans came and made it ten times worse with carbon emissions. The beginnings of the Palaeolithic period are often placed around 1.7 million years ago, when hominids such as Homo erectus were striding out across Africa seeking new vistas. They were not the only ones. Another species of predator was also on the move, in a bio-event known rather catchily as the ‘Wolf Event’. Dogs went walkies from Africa to Eurasia and further.

These periods of intercontinental migration usually occur due to climate changes and the Wolf Event is probably no different (another example of course is the Great American Biotic Interchange, when northern megafauna crossed the land bridge at Panama to access south America). Sometimes Xenocyon is referred to as the African Wolf, as there certainly was movement of the earliest species, X. lycaonoides, from Africa around the same time as other great predators following the movements of herd animals. Nothing remains static in environmental histories. Temperatures in Europe were cooling, starting the story of glaciation and extinction we now call the Ice Age. Herds of herbivorous creatures would follow availability of good grazing, and right behind them would be the hunters, looking for juicy antelopes and equids. In the case of the packs of Xenocyon, they most likely would have welcomed a juicy H. erectus into their a la carte menu, as hominids would have been relatively defenceless against packs of creatures who hunted like African Dogs.

Considering that at least on one occasion, Xenocyon contributed to the creation of a different canid, we can revisit the delicious research carried out by numerous geneticists such as Wayne, Larson and Hulme-Beaman, whose collective findings were recently published in Science journal. The conclusion most geneticists are reaching is that all varieties of modern dogs can trace their ancestry to extinct wolf-like creatures. Random interbreeding, environmental changes and then human involvement in selective breeding for specific qualities means that nature just doesn’t stop dead. What we perhaps have thought of as outright extinction sometimes is really just evolution doin’ its thing- changing and adapting until new responses are needed to new environmental challenges.

[Source: Twilight Beasts]

The origin of domestic dogs is poorly understood [ 1–15 ], with suggested evidence of dog-like features in fossils that predate the Last Glacial Maximum [ 6, 9, 10, 14, 16 ] conflicting with genetic estimates of a more recent divergence between dogs and worldwide wolf populations [ 13, 15, 17–19 ].

fx1 - wolf family tree1

Here, we present a draft genome sequence from a 35,000-year-old wolf from the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia. We find that this individual belonged to a population that diverged from the common ancestor of present-day wolves and dogs very close in time to the appearance of the domestic dog lineage. We use the directly dated ancient wolf genome to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs and find that the mutation rate is substantially slower than assumed by most previous studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves before the Last Glacial Maximum. We also find evidence of introgression from the archaic Taimyr wolf lineage into present-day dog breeds from northeast Siberia and Greenland, contributing between 1.4% and 27.3% of their ancestry. This demonstrates that the ancestry of present-day dogs is derived from multiple regional wolf populations.

gr2 wolf dog family tree 2

[Source: Current Biology]


Increasingly, the restoration of large carnivores is proposed as a means through which to restore community structure and ecosystem function via trophic cascades. After a decades-long absence, African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) recolonized the Laikipia Plateau in central Kenya, which we hypothesized would trigger a trophic cascade via suppression of their primary prey (dik-dik; Madoqua guentheri) and the subsequent relaxation of browsing pressure on trees. We tested the trophic-cascade hypothesis using: (1) a 14-year time series of wild dog abundance; (2) surveys of dik-dik population densities conducted before and after wild dog recovery; and (3) two separate, replicated herbivore-exclusion experiments initiated before and after wild dog recovery. The dik-dik population declined by 33% following wild dog recovery, which is best explained by wild dog predation. Dik-dik browsing suppressed tree abundance, but the strength of suppression did not differ between pre- and post-wild dog recovery. Despite strong, top-down limitation between adjacent trophic levels (carnivore-herbivore and herbivore-plant), a trophic cascade did not occur, possibly because of a time lag in indirect effects, variation in rainfall, and foraging by herbivores other than dik-dik. Our ability to reject the trophic-cascade hypothesis required two important approaches: (1) temporally-replicated herbivore exclusions, separately established before and after wild dog recovery; (2) evaluating multiple drivers of variation in the abundance of dik-dik and trees. While the restoration of large carnivores is undoubtedly a conservation priority, our results suggest that indirect effects are mediated by ecological context, and that trophic cascades are not a foregone conclusion of such recoveries.

[Source: ESA]

hwrjsjw6-1389287818 wolves

Based on field research, my Oregon State University co-author Robert Beschta and I documented the impact of cougars and wolves on the regeneration of forest tree stands and riverside vegetation in Yellowstone and other national parks in western North America. Fewer predators, we found, lead to an increase in browsing animals such as deer and elk. More browsing disrupts vegetation, reduces birds and some mammals and changes other parts of the ecosystem. From the actions of the top predator, widespread impacts cascade down the food chain.

Similar effects were found in studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters. For example in Europe, absence of lynx has been closely tied to the abundance of roe deer, red fox and hare. In Australia, the construction of a 3,400-mile dingo-proof fence has enabled scientists to study ecosystems with and without dingoes which are closely related to gray wolves. They found that dingoes control populations of herbivores and exotic red foxes. The suppression of these species by dingoes reduces predation pressure, benefiting plants and smaller native prey.

In some parts of Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in olive baboons, which threaten crops and livestock. In the waters off southeast Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale predation has led to a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

[Source: The Conversation]


In Australia, the culling of dingoes is a relatively common practice to protect livestock. However, these culls are often strongly opposed on the grounds of the ecological effect they may have on the trophic cascade. According to the mesopredator theory, culling a top predator such as the dingo will result in an increased abundance of mesopredators – feral cats, red foxes and goannas – which in turn increases predation in lower trophic levels.

Allen and colleagues conducted a series of manipulative experiments at nine sites spanning five ecosystem types across the Australian continental rangelands to investigate the responses of mesopredators to contemporary poison-baiting programs. They show that culling dingoes within conventional limits does not result in an increased presence of mesopredators, and therefore contradicts the idea that this effect can result in conservation issues for smaller threatened Australian species.

The researchers suggest that careful planning of dingo culls, such as around the peak cattle calving season, provides livestock producers with a window of opportunity to reduce livestock predation during high-risk times while still maintaining ecological diversity of the trophic cascade.

Allen, who led the study, explained, “Dingo populations recovered to pre-control levels within months, which means that baiting does not create the conditions required for mesopredators to increase. This helps us to understand why, despite years of control measures the numbers of dingoes in Australia is at an all time high.”

[Source: Biome]


On television and in scientific journals, the story of how carnivores influence ecosystems has seized imaginations. From wolves in North America to lions in Africa and dingoes in Australia, top predators are thought to exert tight control over the populations and behaviours of other animals, shaping the entire food web down to the vegetation through a ‘trophic cascade’. This story is popular in part because it supports calls to conserve large carnivores as ‘keystone species’ for whole ecosystems. It also offers the promise of a robust rule within ecology, a field in which researchers have yearned for more predictive power.

But several studies in recent years have raised questions about the top-predator rule in the high-profile cases of the wolf and the dingo. That has led some scientists to suggest that the field’s fascination with top predators stems not from their relative importance, but rather from society’s interest in the big, the dangerous and the vulnerable. “Predators can be important,” says Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, “but they aren’t a panacea.”


“The predator was gone for at least 70 years,” says Marshall. “Removing it has changed the ecosystem in fundamental ways.” This work suggests that wolves did meaningfully structure the Yellowstone ecosystem a century ago, but that reintroducing them cannot restore the old arrangement.

Arthur Middleton, a Yale ecologist who works on Yellowstone elk, says that such studies have disproved the simple version of the trophic cascade story. The wolves, elk and vegetation exist in an ecosystem with hundreds of other factors, many of which seem to be important, he says.

Another classic example of a trophic cascade has come under attack in Australia. The standard story there is that the top predator, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo), controls smaller introduced predators such as cats and foxes, allowing native marsupials to thrive. But Ben Allen, an ecologist at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Toowoomba, has compared9 areas where dingoes are poisoned with areas where they are left alone, and found no difference in marsupial abundance. He is quite cynical, he says, about “this idea that top predators are wonderful for the environment and will put everything back to the Garden of Eden”

Ripple is not worried about these debates, which he views as quibbling over details that do not undermine the overall strength of the tropic-cascade hypothesis. In fact, when he published a major review10 this year of the effects that predators exert over ecosystems, he left out studies critical of the wolf and dingo trophic-cascade theories; he says that there was no room for them in the space he had to work with. Ripple is particularly concerned with documenting the impacts of Earth’s top carnivores because so many are endangered. “We are losing these carnivores at the same time that we are learning about their ecological effects,” he says. “It is alarming, and this information needs to be brought forth.”

The debate has been harsh at times, but in quieter moments the different factions all tend to talk in similar terms about the great complexity of ecosystems and the likelihood that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. James Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the fathers of the trophic-cascade idea, says that the evidence for cascades mediated by changes in animal behaviour rather than by changes in animal number is “thin”, at the moment — and that many of the effects that have been documented are spotty and badly need to be rigorously mapped out. Still, he adds, “When all is said and done, and everyone is dead 100 years from now, Bill [Ripple] will be closer to right”.

Although Ripple stresses the role of the top carnivores, he agrees they are not the end of the story. “I believe in the combination of top-down and bottom-up, working in unison,” he says. “They are both playing out on any given piece of ground and the challenge will be to discover what determines their interactions and relative effects.”

[Source: Nature]

If Science Could ‘Clone A Mammoth,’ Could It Save An Elephant?

Until we figure out how to meet the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, they shouldn’t be in captivity at all, much less being used to make mammoths. If we were to put that all aside, I don’t want to see mammoths come back — it’s never going to be possible to create a species that is 100 percent identical. But what if we could use this technology not to bring back mammoths but to save elephants?

What if we could use this technology to make elephants slightly better adapted to cooler climates, the type of place that mammoths used to live? We could then create more space for them. … Mammoths and elephants have approximately 99 percent identical genomes. If we are talking about changing a few genes here and there to make them better adapted to living in the cold, I think we are talking about preserving elephants.

I think that the key use of this technology … is to protect species and populations that are alive today. Take, for example, the black-footed ferrets that are living across the plains of North America. Black footed ferrets nearly went extinct a couple decades ago because of extermination programs. Today, black-footed ferrets are threatened by a disease. What if we could use this same technology that we’re talking about to go back in time, to sequence DNA of ferrets in museums somewhere that are decades or centuries or even thousands of years old, and find genetic diversity in those that we could then inject in the populations today that have no genetic diversity?

Maybe we could use this technology to give those populations a little bit of a genetic booster shot and maybe a fighting a chance against the diseases that are killing them. We’re facing a crisis — a conservation, biodiversity crisis. This technology might be a very powerful new weapon in our arsenal against what’s going on today. I don’t think we should dismiss it out of fear.


Formerly top secret, Fort de Vaujours was a key site for France’s nuclear arms program, with core components of the country’s first atom bombs developed here in the 1960s. Scientists blew up more than half a ton of uranium in 2,000 explosions at the fort, often outdoors, just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower.


There were no full nuclear detonations at Vaujours, but parts of the fort were coated in radioactive dust. The site was closed in 1997 and, after efforts at decontamination, sealed to the public.

These days curtains flap from rows of overgrown buildings; radiation symbols and other graffiti cover the security post, which is filled, weirdly, with women’s shoes. The empty housing of a vast supercomputer sits in gloom; vines spill into laboratories.


The ruins recall the post-apocalypse landscape of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.


Ms. Leclerc and her partner, Bruno Mellier, have converted a former ammunition store there into a homey kitchen and cleared a secret garden.


A local mayor allowed the couple to occupy the place in return for keeping vandals away. They do not live on the former nuclear test site, they just spend their days off there.


Built in 1881, Vaujours is a huge complex of raised battlements and underground bunkers. Housed inside is the abandoned test center.


Vaujours’ mission was to develop the core mechanisms of France’s bombs, ensuring that a nuclear payload would detonate. The researchers used natural uranium, far more stable than the enriched material found in bombs and unable to accidentally cause a nuclear explosion.


The Atomic Energy Commission, which conducted the explosions, estimates 150 of the 600 kilograms of uranium it used was blown around the fort.


Much of this was cleared but, because of how it was scattered, the agency cannot really know where there is residual contamination.


In 2011, Christophe Nedelec, a local environmentalist, broke into the fort and, using an amateur Geiger counter, found three spots with elevated levels of radiation.

For three years, government regulators, brought in by the site’s owners, said they could find nothing to support his findings. But in February, Mr. Chareyron’s watchdog group found contamination at the same spots — including a uranium fragment 70 times normal radiation levels — compelling regulators to acknowledge its presence.


During the same tests, state technicians from the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety again initially missed the contamination; Mr. Chareyron had to help them locate it.

Inside the ruins, Ms. Leclerc and Mr. Mellier, who sells windmills, spend their time clearing undergrowth and replastering. They were brought together, both in middle age, by a shared passion for the fort.


text & pictures from Seeing a New Future for French Nuclear Site, After the Toxic Dust Has Settled | extra pictures via Souvenirs du Fort de Vaujours |

Welcome to anthrax island

Authorities in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which share the former island’s territory, do not encourage visitors. Almost all of the agents responsible for the deadly diseases tested on Vozrozhdeniye are quickly destroyed when exposed to ultraviolet light. The island’s sparse vegetation, hot desert climate, and sandy soil – which reaches summer temperatures of 60°C – all sharply reduce the possibility that pathogenic microorganisms can survive. The important exception is anthrax, a spore that outlives all the others. It can persist in soil for a very long time, and if any spores reach the lungs the chance of death is usually greater than 90%.

Britain harbours considerable expertise when it comes to anthrax, having conducted a few bioweapons tests on the Scottish island of Gruinard during the second world war. Gruinard remained uninhabited by government decree until 1988.

A US team visited Rebirth Island after September 11 2001, concerned that terrorists might find something useful, and ostensibly to clean it up. But nobody I spoke to before leaving for Kazakhstan knew exactly what the Americans had done. As one expert explained, it took more than 40 years to decontaminate Gruinard. “They pumped formaldehyde over the entire island. You have to kill every single spore, and they can live for centuries.”

The US spending a mere few months on the Vozrozhdeniye clean-up wasn’t good enough for him, so I was taking no chances. The looters looked me over with interest when I approached wearing a protective jumpsuit, rubberised overboots and a face mask. I proffered spare suits, brought along just in case, but there were no takers.

Down in the research zone, on a corridor in one of the laboratory buildings, rooms are full of electrical apparatus or equipped with work-benches and metal cages. One room contains a bed with the sheets still on. Above it a poster offers pictorial reminders of the importance of wearing all the necessary protective clothing. The sheets are rumpled, as if the occupant had risen one morning and forgotten to make his bed.

Back out in the sunshine, the gutted remains of a small building are still littered with petri dishes and glass test-tubes. It doesn’t have a roof, and the rafters had been burnt but, scattered across the floor and in neat stacks along lines of metal shelving, most of the glassware is undamaged. There was no way of telling what foul concoctions they contained. So much for the clean-up operation.


Vozrozhdeniye Island

The Vozrozhdeniye Island test site in the Aral Sea was part of the older, military BW system. The island was apparently chosen for open-air testing of biological weapons because of its geographical isolation.(26) Vozrozhdeniye is situated in the middle of the Aral Sea, surrounded by large, sparsely populated deserts and semi-deserts that hindered unauthorized access to the secret site. The island’s sparse vegetation, hot, dry climate, and sandy soil that reaches temperatures of 60· C (140· F) in summer all reduced the chances that pathogenic microorganisms would survive and spread.(27) In addition, the insular location prevented the transmission of pathogens to neighboring mainland areas by animals or insects. The northern part of Vozrozhdeniye Island, which Kazakhs call Mergensay, is on Kazakhstani territory. The southern two-thirds of the island is in the Karakalpak autonomous region of Uzbekistan.(28)

In 1936, Vozrozhdeniye Island was transferred to the authority of the Soviet MOD for use by the Red Army’s Scientific Medical Institute.(29) The first expedition of 100 people, headed by Professor Ivan Velikanov, arrived on the island that summer. The researchers were provided with special ships and two airplanes and reportedly conducted experiments involving the spread of tularemia and related microorganisms. In the fall of 1937, however, the expedition was evacuated from the island because of security problems, including the arrest of Velikanov and other specialists.(30)

In 1952, the Soviet government decided to resume BW testing on islands in the Aral Sea. A biological weapons test site, officially referred to as “Aralsk-7,” was built in 1954 on Vozrozhdeniye and Komsomolskiy Islands. The MOD’s Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL) was stationed on Vozrozhdeniye Island to conduct the experiments.(31) Military unit 25484, comprising several hundred people, was also based on the island and reported to a larger unit based in Aralsk.(32) The PNIL developed methods of biological defense and decontamination for Soviet troops. Samples of military hardware, equipment, and protective clothing reportedly passed field tests at the island before being mass-produced. During the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, military protective gear developed for Afghan conditions was tested at the PNIL.(33)

Infrastructure and BW Development

The BW test site on Vozrozhdeniye Island was divided into a testing complex in the southern part of the island and a military settlement in the northern part where officers, some with families, and soldiers lived. The settlement had barracks, residential houses, an elementary school, a nursery school, a cafeteria, warehouses, and a power station. Personnel were subjected to regular immunizations and received hardship benefits.(34) PNIL laboratory buildings, located near the residential area, possessed up-to-date equipment and a Biosafety Level 3 containment unit.(35) Also located in the northern part of the island was Barkhan Airport, which provided regular plane and helicopter transportation to the mainland, and a seaport at Udobnaya Bay. Special fast patrol boats protected the island from intruders.

The open-air test site in the southern part of the island was used for studying the dissemination patterns of BW agent aerosols and methods to detect them, and the effective range of aerosol bomblets with biological agents of different types.(36) The testing grounds were equipped with an array of telephone poles with detectors mounted on them, spaced at one-kilometer intervals.(37) BW agents tested at the Vozrozhdeniye site had been developed at the MOD facilities in Kirov, Sverdlovsk, and Zagorsk, and the Biopreparat center in Stepnogorsk, and included anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, plague, typhus, Q fever, smallpox, botulinum toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. The experiments were conducted on horses, monkeys, sheep, and donkeys, and on laboratory animals such as white mice, guinea pigs, and hamsters.(38) In addition to common pathogenic strains, special strains developed for military purposes were tested at the island.(39) Bacterial simulants were also used to study the dissemination of aerosol particles in the atmosphere.

The fact that the island’s prevailing winds always blow toward the south, away from the northern settlement, was probably an important factor in designing the site. The BW aerosol tests were also conducted in such a way as to avoid contaminating the northern military settlement, and a special service on the island was responsible for environmental control.(40) Nevertheless, the activities on the secret island caused serious concerns among local residents because of repeated epidemics and the mass deaths of animals and fish in the area.(41) Individual cases of infectious disease also occurred in people who spent time on the island.(42)

Desiccation of the Aral Sea

By the early 1990s, the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which had been taking place since the 1960s because of the diversion of water into irrigation projects, had begun to impair the operation of the Vozrozhdeniye test site. Although the island was initially 200 square kilometers in size, it expanded to 2,000 square kilometers by 1990.(43) The shrinkage of the Aral Sea increased operational expenditures at the test site, particularly the cost of importing necessary items.(44) The site’s port had to be relocated several dozen kilometers away from the settlement, increasing the need for ground transportation and the size of the labor force needed for loading and unloading operations.(45) Kazakhstani specialists believe that by 2010, the island will be connected to the mainland; there is already a shallow zone between the island and the settlement of Muynak on the Uzbekistani coast. The emergence of a land bridge would eliminate the major security benefits of the island.(46)

The Moscow authorities did not allow Kazakhstani public representatives to visit Vozrozhdeniye Island until 1990.(47) The first Kazakhstani commission, headed by N. I. Ibrayev, Deputy Chairman of the Kzylorda Oblast Executive Committee of the CPSU, visited the island in August 1990. The visit was hosted by Valeriy Sinevich, the commander of the military unit stationed on the island, and Victor Donchenko, deputy head of the PNIL.(48) In the spring of 1992, a second Kazakhstani government commission headed by Svyatoslav Medvedev, Minister of Ecology and Bioresources, visited the island. In August 1992, an independent expert commission of the Aral-Asia-Kazakhstan non-governmental organization also visited.(49) The Russian military authorities claimed that no offensive testing or research had been conducted on the island and that the site had tested only defenses against biological weapons.(50)

Evacuation of Russian military personnel from Vozrozhdeniye Island began in 1991, when the PNIL specialists left and the laboratories were mothballed.(51) On January 18, 1992, the Supreme Soviet of newly independent Kazakhstan issued the edict “On Urgent Measures for Radically Improving the Living Conditions of Aral Area Residents,” which officially closed the Vozrozhdeniye military site. On April 11, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Edict No. 390, “On Ensuring the Implementation of International Obligations Regarding Biological Weapons,” ordered that all offensive BW programs be shut down. Following this decree, the Russian government declared that the Vozrozhdeniye site was closed, the special structures would be dismantled, and within two to three years the island would be decontaminated and transferred to Kazakhstani control.(52) In August 1995, specialists from the US Department of Defense visited Vozrozhdeniye Island and confirmed that the experimental field lab had been dismantled, the site’s infrastructure destroyed, and the military settlement abandoned.(53)

After the Russian authorities left Vozrozhdeniye Island in 1992, local residents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan flocked to the island to seize abandoned military equipment that the Russian forces had been unable to take with them. It is to be hoped that the looting occurred in the safer, residential part of the island. Kazakhstan has not yet used the portion of the island under its jurisdiction for economic purposes, and specialists remain concerned about environmental contamination.


Anthrax ‘time bomb’ ticking in Aral Sea, researchers say [1999]

These weapons were extraordinarily potent. Some of them were actually engineered, genetically, to become more lethal than the strains in nature,” said the institute’s Jonathan Tucker.

In 1988, in a hasty effort to bury evidence of its alleged biological warfare program, the Soviet military hauled tons of bleach-soaked anthrax canisters to Vozrozhdeniye, doused them with even more bleach and then dumped them, the institute says.

The Monterey Institute claims that anthrax is still simmering in the island’s soil. Tucker said that U.S. scientists who took samples from Vozrozhdeniye in 1997 were able to recover viable spores that could be grown in a culture to form live anthrax bacteria.

Russia has never acknowledged any role in the anthrax dump. But the institute’s allegations are backed by a former top Russian biological researcher.

“It is clear, when you destroy tons and tons of their weapons, it wouldn’t be possible to kill everything. And now, what we know, is this island is contaminated,” said Ken Alibek, who was chief of Russia’s biological weapons research and development program before defecting to the United States in 1992.

If anthrax spores have survived, it is possible rodents, birds and other wildlife on the island have been infected, researchers said.

With Vozrozhdeniye now expanding toward the shore, scientists fear infected animals could soon spread toxins to neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

“This island is definitely a potential time bomb, because the shrinking of the sea and the likely emergence within a few years of a land bridge to the mainland and the possibility that insects and rodents, carrying deadly diseases, could cross over and infect the local population,” Tucker said.

There may be yet another concern. Alibek said 60,000 to 70,000 scientists, engineers and technicians worked on biological weapons before the break up of the Soviet Union. Where they went or what they’re doing now, he says, no one seems to know.


Anthrax Island [2003]

Yet it is on this piece of arid scrubland that the legacy of the Soviet germ-warfare program is most menacing.

Before each test, poison was sprayed over the area to kill all insects and animals and make sure they didn’t catch whatever disease was being tested. But since many burrow against the fierce summer heat, some probably survived.

Lepyoshkin and others who worked on the Soviet bioweapons program say it is most likely that some of these surviving local rodents were exposed to the weapons-grade bubonic plague bacteria and survived that too. Fleas would transmit the plague from generation to generation. The disease is resistant to antibiotics and more contagious than the natural kind, which affects a handful of people each year in Central Asia.

The scavengers, who have little knowledge of and less interest in what went on in Kantubek (”I don’t see any microbes,” one scoffed) are risking their lives, Lepyoshkin says. They are risking the lives of others too: if a scavenger contracts the plague and makes it to a hospital, he could start an epidemic.

And more visitors are coming. In 2001, the Kazakh government announced with great fanfare that the Aral Sea region contains major oil deposits. Lepyoshkin says that two shallow wells have been drilled by the Uzbeks on Vozrozhdeniye. So far, no one has fallen ill.


Voted #1 in this list of the World’s 9 Most Inhospitable Places!

How do I get there? Don’t.

For even more detailed info see Sometimes Interesting‘s post.


 A few years later, another photo-reference tour was being cited for the gaming press, only this time it was not a cheery holiday in Europe, but a trip to the Zone Of Alienation. This 30km area of Ukraine and Belarus remains poisoned and largely off-limits to mankind, thanks to the radioactive caesium that dusted it after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986.

While it has remained quarantined and closed to (legal) habitation, it hasn’t kept out sight-seers. The production team at GSC Gameworld, a games studio based in nearby Kiev, intended to use the derelict zone as the basis for environments in their action shooter, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. The team went into the zone and photographed urban dereliction: a snapshot of an abandoned Soviet Union. They would go on to fill their game world with the zone’s rusting fences and collapsing grain silos, but that was not all that came with the material: the landscape and its decaying architecture was already charged with mythology—with narrative.

However, the zone as an idea already existed before the explosion in 1986. It appeared, for instance, in a 1972 science fiction novel called Roadside Picnic. A mysterious, contaminated pocket of landscape, quarantined from the outside world, was the main theme of that book, which was written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

In the Strugatsky’s book, an alien visitation to the earth—an extra-terrestrial “roadside picnic”—has left dangerous and incomprehensible materials strewn across a zone of Northern Canada. Although sealed off for scientific research, this zone is raided by “Stalkers” who sell the unnatural trinkets for black-market cash. To do so, they brave bizarre dangers, because the zone has been transformed into a place that is utterly at odds with our own world. The alien is never seen or even described, and all the characters encounter is its terrible remainder: landscape made alien. Pools of jelly that will cripple a man lurk in basements, extra-terrestrial cobwebs that can stop a heart beating are strung across doorways, and gravitational mantraps will crush anyone who passes over the wrong patch of mud.

The zone of Roadside Picnic was seen by many as an allegory for the entire Soviet experiment: not simply in the literal sense of the poisoned landscapes created by the industrial excesses of the region, but the entire social order that was created by the Communist government. Polluted expanses, continually washed by acid rain, became shorthand for describing the bizarre political situation of a country in which Communism had failed, and yet robotically continued.

Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky shot a movie, called Stalker, which told a story based on that of Roadside Picnic. A glacially slow, almost event-free film about landscape and longing, it’s a work that lingers for long minutes over broken wastelands of abandoned industry. It encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style, as well as his interest in dereliction and decay—themes that would be revisited by the STALKER videogame, thirty years on.

Tarkovsky’s film manages to imbue derelict industrial landscapes with a terrible sense of threat. Largely unable to realize the alien properties of artifacts in Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky projected the danger into the architecture itself. Passive landscapes that could swallow a man. Tunnels which tear them to shreds. These effects were never demonstrated, but also never doubted, thanks to the tentative way the actors explored their surroundings.

In much the same way that the images of the real Chernobyl zone seem like lush vegetative scenes, despite being formidably radioactive, so Tarkovsky’s zone is calm and invisibly dangerous.

Cinematic legend had it that the power station shown in the final background scenes of the film was in fact Chernobyl NPP, although the truth is the entire film was shot in Estonia. That’s not to say that Stalker was without poisonous consequences of its own, however. The first version of the movie was shot entirely on corrupted film, which was unsalvageable when Tarkovsky’s production team returned to their Russian studios. Worse, the second shooting took place down stream from a poorly regulated chemical works. The effluent from the plant was responsible for many of the astonishing visuals in the river scenes from the movie, but team members came to suffer serious side-effects from this exposure, including cancer. They had, it seems, suffered side-effects from their time in the zone: just like the fate of the fictional Stalkers in the Strugatsky books. It was as if the fiction and reality were blurring back through each other. As if—to quote Alan Moore—the written page was too fragile a boundary.

Or perhaps, as Steven Shaviro suggests in his book Connected, Roadside Picnic, like all science fiction, actually exists to cast a shadow over the present. “It shows us how profoundly haunted we are by what has not yet happened,” says Shaviro of science fiction writing. In the specific case of Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s film, what had not happened yet was the Chernobyl disaster.

After 1986, however, there were others for whom the ideas of Roadside Picnic were to be immediately accessible and useful in describing the world that they faced. People going into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to loot buildings or show tourists around, began to call themselves “Stalkers.” For them, the zone of the Strugatsky’s vision was immediate and first-hand, a kind of fictional reference for the reality they were facing. They were living it—and it was strangely convenient to have the Stalker nomenclature to hand.

Universal Souls by lukpazera

The Stalkers: Inside the bizarre subculture that lives to explore Chernobyl’s Dead Zone. 

As the first generation of Ukrainians born after the Chernobyl tragedy comes of age, a small subculture of them is now doing the unthinkable: defying government prohibitions and illegally entering the highly radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or “Dead Zone”—for fun. This group is monitored and pursued by the police and not fond of journalists: They curry in the forbidden, recover meaning from Soviet detritus, and take digital appropriation to new extremes. “It’s a post-apocalyptic romance,” as one young man put it.

For the “post-apocalyptic romantics” who have taken to sneaking into the Zone, a visit to Pripyat has become the Holy Grail. Like trauma victims returning to the scene of the incident, they come here for reasons they can’t fully explain.

Since the Exclusion Zone was created in 1986, there have been isolated trespassers who’ve snuck in to loot. But today breaking into the Zone has become a true geek subculture, and for some, an obsession.

The stalker generation has grown up with a distrust of government and authority, first forged under Soviet rule and furthered in a post-Soviet era beset by corruption and economic turmoil.

Another oft-cited piece of cultural fallout from Chernobyl is a pervasive fatalism; a widespread victim mindset, which creates a feeling of “lacking control over their future,” as Fred Mettler of the International Atomic Energy Association wrote in the report Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts. He adds, “The population remains largely unsure of what the effects of radiation actually are and retain a sense of foreboding. A number of adolescents and young adults who have been exposed to modest or small amounts of radiation feel that they are somehow fatally flawed and there is no downside to using illicit drugs or having unprotected sex.”

Sex, drugs, and radiation: Stalking might be seen as the adolescent acting-out of a generation that feels it’s got nothing to lose. But for many stalkers, it’s clearly something more.

Online communities have emerged to trade information, tips, and advice on what routes are safe from the police, which entrances have become too dangerous, or where supplies are hidden. Experienced stalkers sometimes mentor younger wannabes. Pseudonyms are always used. In-person meetings are only cautiously pursued, as stalkers worry about police sting operations.

Some forums are open only to those who’ve achieved a certain level of success. Stalkers pursue a set of thresholds—or “acceptances”—by reaching an increasingly challenging (and dangerous) set of destinations. “Dogs and security are the biggest problem in the Chernobyl Zone, not radiation, not zombies,” says one veteran who almost lost an eye while fleeing police.

Of course, radiation seems like the most obvious danger, though the health risks aren’t as clear as you might think. Nearly 30 years after an accident, nuclear contaminants with short half-lives are no longer a threat, and acute radiation poisoning would only take place if you “went into the sarcophagus and sat on the fuel containing rods,” says Chernobyl official Vita Polyakova. But there are still elevated background radiation levels in places such as Pripyat as well super “hot spots” of severe contamination, many of them undocumented. The risk of ingesting radionuclides—the radioactive strontium and cesium present in dust, water, and food grown in the area—is the most acute threat.

“For stalkers, it is a unique place where you can find old production facilities and lost military machines,” says Sergiy Paskevych, an ecological expert and head of radiation safety in the Exclusion Zone. Indeed, many stalkers seek out these spots where Soviet cleanup machinery (“machinery cemeteries”) was piled or buried after the accident. These are among the most contaminated locations and are often unmarked and unmapped because the government did not keep records. Finding them is part of the “adventure.” GPS and dosimeters help.