• Readers
  • Authors
  • Partners
  • Students
  • Libraries
  • Advertising
  • Contacts
  • Language: Русская версия
Section: History
"What a Bliss It Is to See NATURE in Its Very Being..."

"What a Bliss It Is to See NATURE in Its Very Being..."

Unexplored Siberia has attracted pioneer naturalists since early 18th century. Works by Russia’s scholars D. G. Messerschmitt, J. G. Gmelin, G. W. Steller, S. P. Krasheninnikov and V. N. Tatishchev devoted to the nature and peoples inhabiting these remote lands were great scientific contributions. Their worthy follower was Peter Simon Pallas, a professor of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

Born in Berlin, Pallas moved to Russia in July 1767 and immediately joined a large state-run scientific project: preparation of long exploratory journeys aimed at studying “the three kingdoms of nature”, i. e., Russia’s flora, fauna and natural resources. The 26-year-old scholar was appointed the leader of a detachment of the so-called Orenburg expedition and was given a team of eight people. His focus of interest was Middle and Lower Volga region, southern Urals and Siberia.

Unexplored Siberia has attracted pioneer naturalists since early 18th century. Works by Russia’s scholars D. G. Messerschmitt, J. G. Gmelin, G. W. Steller, S. P. Krasheninnikov and V. N. Tatishchev devoted to the nature and peoples inhabiting these remote lands were great scientific contributions. Their worthy follower was Peter Simon Pallas, a professor of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

Born in Berlin, Pallas moved to Russia in July 1767 and immediately joined a large state-run scientific project: preparation of long exploratory journeys aimed at studying “the three kingdoms of nature”, i. e., Russia’s flora, fauna and natural resources. The 26-year-old scholar was appointed the leader of a detachment of the so-called Orenburg expedition and was given a team of eight people. His focus of interest was Middle and Lower Volga region, southern Urals and Siberia.

The journey lasted six long years. Pallas and his companions had to face adversity and bear a great many hardships but their eagerness to gain knowledge about the little-known lands of Eurasia was overwhelming. Despite the scorching heat or icy cold, rains or blizzards, flooded roads of spring or mud-locked roads of autumn, the explorers moved on along bad roads and across water obstacles in hooded carts or sledges, in boats and on horseback. And all these misfortunes faded against the background of magnificent landscapes and scientific discoveries.

A journey six years long

Pallas’s detachment left St. Petersburg in summer 1768 and reached the western borders of Siberia whole two years later. All in all, it took Pallas almost three years (1770—1773) to explore the nature of this remote land, whilst the expedition across Russia lasted six years overall. From the very start, the scholar was accompanied by the students Nikita Sokolov and Vasiliy Zuev, and in 1772 the Pallas’s detachment had a new member — the former German pharmacist (and future well-known ethnographer) I. G. Georgi.

The results of their observations, descriptions of new species, reports by the members of Pallas’s detachment, maps and drawings became part of the multi-volume expedition journal published in St. Petersburg first in German and then in Russian under the title Reise durch verschiedene Provinzen des Russischen Reichs. Th. 1-3. 1771—1776 (Journey across the Various Provinces of the Russian Empire; Parts 1-3; 1773—1788; in 5 volumes).

As a naturalist, Pallas had a very sharp eye. His ability to find true rarities in unfamiliar surroundings was really amazing! For instance, exploring the southern Urals, he climbed Mount Zhukova Shishka and made a small list of the plants he discovered there. In the following 150 years, nobody could find these species — understandably, the authenticity of the data collected by Pallas became questionable. It was only in 1927 that Pallas’s findings were supported by the botanist S. Yu. Lipshits, who noted that “confirmation of these data is of twofold interest: on the one hand, they point to the stability of a number of species; on the other hand, they give yet another proof of the remarkable power of observation displayed by the famous traveler” (Lipshits, 1929, p. 272).

Having had more than one chance to use Pallas’s Journey… to find our way, we couldn’t fail to notice how much it resembled a guide. A scientist experienced in field trips is often amazed by the sniper’s choice of the objects Pallas mentioned in passing. Just as the blocks of the so-called “Pallas’s iron” found by his expedition under Krasnoyarsk gave rise to the meteorite theory, so other objects and phenomena discovered by him triggered theoretical speculations which contributed significantly to our knowledge of the world.

There is no need to trace every day and step of Pallas’s journey. We will only dwell on the key points — the ones that have been vital for establishing methods of the new science.

Pallas’s method

The desire, so characteristic of Pallas, to observe the fanciful variety of organic forms in their native environments, be it South Africa or Dauria, is probably indicative of his doubts in the creation dogma. How should we interpret his favorite “herbs are born” — only as “exist and multiply” or does it have a shade of the modern concept of “the origin of species”?

Whatever the answer, his approach is that of a naturalist who observes the objects of his research in field conditions and manages to reveal leading threads in an intricate tangle of connections. It is this skill, brought to perfection through continual exercise, which is the distinguishing feature of the Pallas’s individual method.

One of the numerous examples where the Pallas’s observation technique shows itself as a method for revealing connections between the stiff substance and the living matter is his description of the sand steppes in the valley of the river Irtysh (Kazakhstan). The teresken shrub Krascheninnikovia ceratoides (L. Gueldenst.) and Astragalus ammodites (Pall.) are described by Pallas as specialized psammophytes, i. e., plants whose biology is finely adapted to the properties of their substrate, drift sands.

“The root of this plant is branched off into countless thin, ramified roots growing all around the sand and thus forming a vast number of hillocks…I think that this plant, unfamiliar so far to grass explorers, can be very useful in making drift sands solid. On this plant I found an excellent species of Tenebrio buprestoides (Pall.) [according to G. S. Medvedev, Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, it is Melanesthes laticollis Gebler (Tenebrionidae)], which digs through the hillocks heaped around the plant.” And further on, “Here we saw for the first time this new and beautiful kind of mouse… whose favorite food is pods of Astragalus physodes (Pallas, 1786, p. 169). This “beautiful mouse” “feeds on various seeds, deftly extracting them from the pods and stuffing them in its cheek pockets, and thus carrying the seeds away to its hole” (Pallas, 1786, pp. 498—499). This animal was the Djungarian hamster Phodopus sungorus (Pall.), discovered by Pallas. The landscape, soil, plants, insect and mammal are all regarded as components of a natural system, which is very characteristic of Pallas.

It should be noted that his sharp eye for regularities governing relationships between a plant and its substrate, an animal and its food largely determined the ways for the development of the national natural science. He was a precursor of the new science, ecology.

Natural borders

Moving from one place to another, Pallas observed the changes taking place around him as a geographer, noting characteristic features of the landscapes, change of the plant communities, distinctions in the species and varieties of plants and animals, and ethnographic traits of the population. Diverse natural phenomena were interpreted geographically to serve the interests of land studies. The purpose that was always in his mind was a search for geographic borders of all ranks. The gist of the challenge was to single out characteristic features of Siberian nature, mark its distinction from the European nature and draw the geographic borderline between the European and the Asian part of the gigantic Eurasian continent.

It should be noted that in the 18th century Siberia was considered to mean the vast landmass between the Ural ridge and the Pacific coast; Siberia’s southern border coincided approximately with the border of the Russian Empire in the outlines of that time. There was no such geographic region as the “Russian Far East” yet.

The first explorer of Siberia Messerschmitt drew the borderline between Asia and Europe along the Ural ridge. This division, which has survived in geography to this day, seemed too formal to the botanist Gmelin, who believed that Asia began as far east as the river Yenisei. Many modern zoogeographers agree with Gmelin, and botanists also find a lot of evidence in support of this view.

Pallas, however, questioned Gmelin’s thesis. He shifted the border of “true Asia” even farther to the east, to the Transbaikal area, and suggested drawing the border along the Yablonovyy ridge, on the other side of which lay Dauria (part of Buryatia bordering on Mongolia along the river Onon).

It is pertinent to note that methods and principles of division into regions, which have always been a central and widely debated topic, still cause a lot of disagreement.

The land where “grasses are born”

Dauria, in Pallas’s description, was a fabulous land where he felt what “a bliss it is to see nature in its very being”. Neither hardships of the journey, nor majestic views of Lake Baikal or foreign goods of the merchant Kiachta bordering on China were described in such an expressive and precise manner.

Pallas considered Dauria to be the land that gave birth to highly original species. He repeated more than once that it was homeland to a large number of remarkable plants, some of which became known thanks to his predecessors. To this list he added another 23 species (out of the total of 52 species he discovered in East Siberia).

To this day, the flora of Dauria including the species of dry Mongolian steppes, forest species of East Asia (Manchuria) and plants of Central Asian deserts seems complicated. Daurian ridges connect the ancient continental “angarid” center of plant species formation with northeastern Asia, and unique traits characteristic of some of its species allow us to regard it as “the motherland of Siberian growings”, in Pallas’s words, though he somewhat exaggerated the integrity of this flora.

Having just reached an unknown land, Pallas managed to identify correctly the features of its landscape and named the species vital for understanding the history of formation of its flora. This is what he wrote in 1772 upon his arrival in Tura: “Daurian mountains looked gorgeous in their spring attire. Most decorative was Erigeron gramineum, which is plentiful on the slopes of warm stony mountains all over East Siberia (Pallas, 1788, p. 264). This plant, now referred to as Arctogeron gramineum (L.) DC., is a typical xerophyte (a plant adapted for growth under dry conditions) of Transbaikal and Mongolian steppes; it belongs to the group of xerophyte endemics (i. e., plants belonging exclusively to a certain place) of the Pleistocene period; and this group is believed to have developed and spread from Dauria.

In Pallas’s time, the terrain up to Kulussutai was “a level and arid saline land. The surface of this spacious lowland, extremely flat and level, was made of stone, gravel and dry silt. Here and there stone hillocks protruded like islands in a waterless ocean. <...> Everything around was barren and you could see nothing but sapless grass and wormwood. <...> Around those hillocks grew Nitraria and Salicornia foliate” (Pallas, 1788, pp. 295—296).

Those plants, mentioned by Pallas, are relicts of the xerophyte flora formed during the Paleogene Period. Today, both species inhabit the deserts of Middle and Central Asia but are extremely rare in Dauria. They can also be found in saline communities located in depressions typical of the northern and eastern parts of the Gobi deserts, Mongolia (Rachkovskaya, 1993). Probably, the hydrologic cycle which changed the nature of salinization brought about changes in the flora.

The reliability of Pallas’s observations allows us to include his data in the 300-year cycle of environment monitoring. There are very few areas on the Earth that have such solid documented evidence.

Pallas as a zoologist

Pallas was just as lucky in spotting and describing new species of animals. Sometimes even unexpected misfortunes turned into naturalist’s luck. For example, in early May 1772 Pallas and his companions, who were going towards the Yablonovyy ridge, had to spend the night in a dug-out. In the morning, they saw that hard frost and hunger had killed a lot of their horses. The horses’ corpses lying in the snow attracted “crows and sparrows that pecked at them and whose cawing allured more birds — it was a frightening sight. <...> There was no end to it, and the snow kept falling, but I found some comfort in observing a few forest birds that were driven to our shelter by hunger. Apart from the well-known birds, I noticed seven new species that I had never seen before since they usually live in dense forests and are very timid.” (Pallas, 1788, p. 253).

All these new bird species were described by Pallas in “Addition” of the second half of the third volume of Journey. Note that this remarkable work contains descriptions of new species of over 80 mammals, 40 birds, 2 reptiles, 16 fishes, 18 insects and other invertebrates that, as it was indicated, inhabited Siberia. Among these new species were such animals as the kolinsky, manul cat, Daurian hamster (also known as the Baraba hamster), root vole and Daurian zokor. The Siberian birds discovered by Pallas include the Daurian jackdaw, blue magpie, Siberian redstart, blue nightingale, Mongolian lark, Mongolian plover and many others.

One of the most famous Siberian birds discovered by Pallas during his journey was the white Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus Pall.), a world’s rarest bird. Some fish species, very well-known today, were first described by Pallas. It will suffice to mention the taimen, lenok and big golomyanka, Baikal’s endemic.

In late July 1771 Pallas went towards Zmeinogorsk and then on to the Altai to explore the Tigiretsky ridge. “In these mountains I discovered a species of the rock rabbit that had not been described yet. These rabbits have an extraordinary quality: by autumn, they make hay and take it back to their burrows for storage.” (Pallas’s scientific legacy, 1993, pp. 177).

This animal, as we now know, is not a rabbit but belongs to the family of pikas within the order of the lagomorphs. The Altai, or Alpine, pika first discovered by Pallas is now referred to in Latin as Ochotona alpina (Pallas, 1773). The famous naturalist contributed a lot to the study of these remarkable animals sometimes called hay stackers because of their extraordinary hay storage habits that Pallas noticed over 230 years ago. He discovered and described another three species of pikas, including Ochotona alpina hyperboreus (Pallas, 1811), which many taxonomists today accept as an independent species spread in the north of Siberia from the Urals to Kamchatka.

On “the elephant’s bones and teeth”

When Pallas was exploring the banks of the rivers Pyshma and Iset’ close to Siberia’s western border, he heard about “the elephant’s bones and teeth” found in a trough near the reek Syvarysh — and reported this event to the Academy of Sciences in 1770. However, he did not take the remnants along with him because of their poor condition.

Let us note that before the expedition, when in St. Petersburg, Pallas published the paper “On the Fossil Bones of Siberia” in New Commentaries of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. In this paper he dwelt on the findings of “elephants” (mammoths), the woolly rhinoceros, “straight-horned gazelle” and “buffalo” brought by Gmelin from Siberia and kept in the Kunstkamera. We can thus say that thanks to the museum collections he was well prepared to appreciating the value of paleozoological findings. In the course of the expedition, Pallas had an opportunity to examine these findings in the place where they were discovered, which is of utmost importance for correct interpretation.

Pallas observed that at the banks of the river Irtysh, washed away by water, they often found strange remnants of elephants and other big bones that looked like the bones of rhinoceros or of very big buffalos. Moreover, when excavating at a height of 8 sazhen’s (a sazhen is 2.134 meters) above the water level, he discovered sand mixed with a multitude of small calcined bivalves that were not found in the river, as well as bones of large fishes. This fact made Pallas change his mind and attribute the burials to great floods.

The Russian-Asian Zoography

In November 1771, in a letter to Müller, Pallas shared with him an important plan of his. Telling Müller about his desire to explore, on the way back, steppes along the Yaik (the river Ural) and the Volga, he wrote: “In these regions, I anticipate many amazing discoveries, a huge number of which have already been made in natural history. Since I intend sometime to write the history of the Russian and Siberian fauna, it is necessary that I should go to these warm places to add new notes to my collection.” (Pallas’s scientific legacy, 1993, p. 195).

It was thus in Siberia — in the town of Krasnoyarsk, to be more exact – that Pallas got the idea to write a fundamental reference book on Russia’s fauna. However, this work would take the great naturalist a few dozens of years. Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica (The Russian-Asian Zoography), the crowning point of almost half a century of his zoological studies, would be printed in St. Petersburg only in 1811—1813. The first two volumes contained information about birds and animals; and the third volume dwelt on amphibians, reptiles and fishes. This truly magnificent encyclopedia of Russian zoology of late 18th—early 19th century offered evidence about 872 species of vertebrates, the majority of which were new to the science.

The species indicated by Pallas as belonging to Siberia (from the river Irtysh to the Pacific) constituted two-thirds of Russia’s vertebrates! Siberian species were fewest among the reptiles (19%) whilst among birds they were the most numerous (76%).

Also, Pallas was preparing materials on insects and other invertebrates of the Russian Empire but this work was left unfinished. The amount of data accumulated proved to be enormous but his life came to an end. Pallas would not see his work published: in 1810 he returned to Berlin, where he would rest in peace on September 8 of the following year.

The Russian-Asian Zoography made Pallas famous as one of the most prominent zoologists of his time, his works have been quoted widely ever since. In fact, he was the discoverer of the rich animal kingdom of Siberia.

When Pallas returned safely to St. Petersburg, director of the Academy of Sciences suggested that he should draft a project of a new expedition. In response, Pallas compiled a list of poorly explored regions and made a comment that “as far as botany and zoology is concerned, Siberia can be considered nearly exhausted” (Gnoucheva, 1940, p.135).

Shortly, however, he expressed a very different view: “East Siberia promises an infinite multitude of interesting data concerning botany and natural history” (Gnoucheva, 1940, p. 140). Probably, the opinion expressed earlier can be attributed to the fresh memory of the hardships suffered during the expedition, whereas comprehension of the results achieved thanks to that journey came later. The experience obtained in the 250 years that have passed since then lends support to Pallas’s later view, and the strict accuracy of his field observations is so valuable that it continues to urge modern explorers to analyze the gist of his methodology.

This article presents the results of the project supported by the grant of the Russian Humanitarian Academic Fund 05–03–03133а.

Like the article? Share it with your friends

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter