Lake Baikal, more often called by the local people 'the sea', has thousands of smaller brothers - small and tiny lakes scattered like pearl beads in the mountains and valleys of Baikal Siberia. They differ in shape, depth and water transparency. Many of them are rich in mineral salts and are fed by hot thermal springs. People have been curing many diseases in such lakes since olden times. Depending on the degree of mineralization and ground peculiarities is the character of higher aquatic vegetation. In some cases the lake's vegetation consists of submerged into the water depth, rooted vascular plants, in others ‑ of solute water plants. Rooted water plants with freely-floating leaves form a special group. And last of all, there are some species of plants, chaotically floating on the surface of water.
Predominant in the group of the submerged and rooted aquatic vegetation are different communities of foxtail and various species of the pond-weed family. Foxtail plays the major role in the process of shallow water-bodies' overgrowing. Foxtail is not fastidious about the growth conditions and takes root in different grounds ‑ from saline to peat ‑ developing better in dead-water ponds, and readily propagating with roots and seeds. Pond-weeds belong to the most widely-distributed species of the aquatic vegetation of both small and big lakes. Adapting to the habitat conditions, they take various forms: long-leaved, long-stemmed and blunt-leaved. Long-stemmed forms are common in deep dead-water reservoirs, while running-water and small lakes are overgrown only with long-leaved forms of clasping-leaved pond-weeds. Very often, pond-weeds form homogeneous thickets consisting of one species only. But sometimes many-species pond-weed communities with water crowfoots, arrowheads and very interesting insectivorous plant ‑ bladderwort, are formed. Rare species of pond-weeds grow in small patches along the Baikal shoreline and in Gusinoe Lake, Bolshaya Eravna Lake, etc.Ô
Of the solute water plants, very common are communities of submerged hornworts. These plants can live only in dead-water and slit reservoirs, for, having no roots, they stick to the bottom ground only with the lower parts of their stems. Very often the thickets consist of the submerged hornwort only, but sometimes there is plenty of bladderwort and different species of pond-weed and foxtail. All these productive water plants are good food for water fowl and water rodents.
Of all the representatives of free-floating rooted lake vegetation, it is the floating arrowhead and penniwort-leaved floatingheart communities that cover most of the area. The arrowhead is typical of shallow lakes, subject to considerable fluctuations in water levels. Arrowhead communities are various; thriving in them are not only pond-weeds, bladerwort and hornwort, but tall and beautifully blooming species of water plantain and flowering rush too. Their white-pink, large flower clasters are towering spec-taculously over the calm glassy surface of the water.
The floatingheart is quite common in the reservoirs of the Selenga River delta, favouring shallow lakes with slowly running water. Floatinghearts endure ground silting and muddy water very well and easily propagate with root suckers. Frequent fluctuations of the water level in the shoal made them capable of drying periodically, producing land forms, with leaf cuttings reacting actively: rolling when the water level falls down and unrolling again when it rises.
The quantity of plants, floating freely on the water surface in the aquatic vegetation in Baikal Siberia, is insignificant. Virtually, they are limited to the monotonous blankets of common duckweed. For a short period of time the still, mirror-like surface of stagnant-water reservoirs remains covered with a green carpet. It is good food for fish and water fowl.
Extremely interesting is the flora of Lake Baikal itself. It comprises 1085 species, the greater part of which being algae. There are 509 species of Diatoma algae, 99 species of tetraspore and chlorococcus algae, 45 ‑ of blue-green, 28 ‑ of yellow-green algae and 13 ‑ of Volvocales. Most of the Baikal water plants grow only in littoral waters and the deepest they can be met is 100‑115 meters. Specific conditions of life in Baikal Lake promoted the development of plankton organisms mostly, leading a free, floating mode of life in the water depths. Nevertheless, five regular zones can be distinguished in the Baikal littoral zone. Closest to the shore is the belt of green algae, the second belt is formed by green and Diatoma algae. This belt is especially well marked in the first part of the summer, when the green algae reproduction is at its height. The third belt comprises several species of algae thriving at the depth of 2-20 meters. Following them are the next two belts, not as well-shaped as the former ones. The fourth belt consisting of a complex of various algae is connected with large-grain, clear sand, free of silt. And the last one, the fifth, is situated at the depth of 20‑45 meters on silt-covered fine sand. Dominating in the latter is only one species - green algae.
Water plants play a great role in the life of Baikal. It is well known that phyto-plankton, in the process of photosynthesis, forms annually 3925 thousand tons of carbon, involving in the rotation 286 thousand tons of nitrogen, 62 thousand tons of phosphorus and 600 thousand tons of silicon. Water plants are food for many fish species. Connected with them is 'water-bloom', for instance, in the period when the plankton's development is at its height. In Baikal it happens more often in spring, when the lake is still covered with ice. A scanty 'water-bloom' occurs in autumn too.
Upon the whole, aquatic vegetation of the Baikal region is by far the poorer than that of the contiguous water-bodies situated on the same latitude. This is due not only to the extreme climatic conditions of our land, but to the specific hydrological regime of the water-bodies, i.e. high mineralization, late ice thawing and summer floods. And nevertheless, the severe conditions have brought to life wonderfully adapted, original forms and varieties of pond-weeds, hornworts, arrowheads and other water plants, thriving in our lake country.
Represented in the fauna of Baikal Lake are almost all the major types of freshwater animal world. Known nowadays are 1550 species and varieties of animals inhabiting Baikal. Besides, connected with them are multitudes of land animal species: near-water and water fowl, and several species of mammals.
The Baikal fauna strikes specialists with an abundance of endemic species. Thriving nowhere else in the world but here are about 1000 species: 96 kinds, 11 families and subfamilies. Whether big or small, no other lake of the world can boast of such endemism.
The most richly represented are the invertebrates. There are 255 Amphipoda species, over 100 species of oligochetes, crustaceans and chironomides. The vertebrates are represented by 29 species of the golomyanka ‑ goby fish. Dwelling in Baikal are about 30 percent of the known on the Earth Amphipoda, with only one common in the other lakes of the region ‑ lake amphipoda.
Notable among the Baikal invertebrates is a tiny crustacean ‑ epishura. Its role in maintaining the purity and high quality of Baikal water is dramatic. The epishura filters and purifies about 83 cubic kilometers of water daily, which makes it over 30 thousand cubic kilometers annually. But for this tiny hard-working creature, that deserves a monument for its invaluable contribution, we would have a different Baikal now. But the fate of the crustacean itself arouses anxiety and concern. Lake Baikal is being drastically polluted and epishura is decreasing in number, while the quantity of putrefactive bacteria and other microorganisms is increasing, which testifies but to one thing ‑ degradation of water quality.
Baikal and other water-bodies of the area are known for a great variety offish. Thriving here are 56 species, 52 in Baikal itself, with 27 endemic species among them. Most of the endemics are to be found among the goby family ‑ 22. Gobies, or shirokolobiks (as they are called locally), are met in every part of Baikal. Some of them dwell in bottom, others - in deep waters. Of all the great variety of the goby, only two species: Zheltokrilka and Dlinnokrilka ‑ are important as food fish, catch of the other species being significantly smaller.
Of great interest is a small fish ‑ golomyanka. There are two species: greater and lesser golomyanka. Seeing it for the first time, one is struck by its beauty: it is pale-pink with pearly specks. Golomyanka is so transparent, that you can read words written in big letters through it. This fish is the most numerous. About 5 billion of golomyanka inhabit the lake. Unlike other fish species, dwelling in the lake, golomyanka is viviparous. One fish produces 1.5‑2.5 thousand larva, itself dying. It's the only viviparous fish that dies giving birth. And in general, it is a unique and mysterious fish.
And how delicious is Baikal omul. It is not by chance that it has been introduced into British, Chec, Slovak, Mongolian and Japanese water-bodies. The species is becoming common in many water-bodies of East Siberia. Much has been written about omul. This delicious fish can be grilled (omulna rozhne), baked in hot ashes; it is eaten salty, smoked, dried, fried, raw-frozen and planed deep-frozen.
Thriving in Baikal are many other species of white fish: Baikal sturgeon, davatchan, taimen, black and white grayling, sig (blackfin fish), etc.
Water-bodies of Baikal Siberia abound in water fowl, near-water birds and mammals. Common here are twenty species of geese, and another ten species can be seen during the migration season, when passing by. Quite recently, about twenty years ago, in spring and in autumn, flocks of geese could be seen high up in the sky. During the migration season for some days running, from morning till night, with a short interval in-between, there flew, following one another, wedge-shaped flocks of bean geese.
Lately the number of geese flocks has decreased considerably. In spring, they stop over at Baikal in the vicinity of Svyatoi Nos neck, in the delta of the Verkhnaya Angara and the Kitchera Rivers. They usually feed here. In autumn bean geese can be seen quite commonly stopping over in the fields to feed.
Very rarely seen are greylag geese, white-fronted geese and lesser white-fronted geese. Not long ago in the Selenga River delta there nested the only species of the geese common in this lake-land ‑ the Swan goose, but its number has decreased so much that now it is almost never seen. As a rare species, the Swan goose has been entered into the Red Data Book of this country and Buryatia.
No one will be left indifferent seeing a whooper swan. This snow-white, proud bird looks most beautiful on the blue, glossy lake surface. One never gets tired watching it for hours. The Buryats consider it to be a sacred bird. In many of the legends it symbolizes loyalty and beauty. No Buryat hunter will ever dare shoot the exquisite bird. We can say that swans are protected by people's memory and the national tradition. And nevertheless, the whooper swan is a rare bird and has been entered into the Red Data Book of Buryatia.
Sometimes, when passing by, Bewick's swans can be seen here ‑ the birds as beautiful as whooper swans. They don't stay long here, hurrying North to the native tundra, where during the short tundra summer they are to rear their young and teach them to fly.
If, when wandering in the Selenga River delta with field glasses, you take a good look at every duck sitting there, you are sure to count about twenty different species. You will more often see the well-known Mallard. The ancestor of our domestic duck, it is common on all the lakes and channels. More often it nests on tussocks, not far from water, sometimes managing to hatch ducklings in old magpies' nests. It's interesting to watch ducklings jump out of such nests, their thick down preventing them from hurting themselves badly. After the soft landing, as if nothing at all had happened, as if they had been parachuting all their life, they follow their mother to the lake, where they are to spend their childhood. Common here are the closest relatives of mallards ‑ gadwalls, and more rare are spot-bill ducks. Here and there, taking a rest, are green-winged teals and Eurasian wigeons. High up above the head, whistling, is a flock of tufted pochards. Swimming in peaceful backwater are Northern pochards. From very far away, by her long tail, you will readily recognize a very beautiful duck ‑ the Northern pintail. Stopping over here during the migration season are long-tail ducks, smews and greater scaups.
Ducks' courtship displays are a wonderful spectacle. Drakes, in their beautiful bright 'garments', trying to please their gray ducks, take spectacular postures, displaying the most beautiful parts of their plumage. Not all the males are equally successful in doing so, but the most persistent ones are rewarded. Soon they form pairs, but unlike many other birds not for the whole breeding season. Very often the males leave their mates as soon as the females lay their eggs. Therefore spring shooting of drakes, owing to the lack of knowledge of the ducks' biology, leads to the breach of mating pairs and ruin of unfinished clutches.
Very spectacular on the water are black-throated and red-throated loons. These rare birds choose large and secluded lakes. Common here are grebes. Very skillful divers, they are wonderful anglers too.
In the evening, coming from reed thickets, is a low roaring of a bull. But it isn't a bull, it's a Eurasian bittern, a large night bird of the heron family, calling. Staying hidden in the day-time, it is rarely seen. But its relative, the Grey heron, is readily seen on almost all the lakes.
All over the Baikal country, quite common are herring, mew and black-headed gulls; more rare are little gulls. Nesting on swampy shores are white-winged, whiskered and little terns. Dwelling on the rivers are common terns.
Along the shores of big and small lakes one can see 'huts' made of reed ‑ dwellings of a musk-rat, a near-water small animal of American descent. It has been dwelling here more than sixty years. Brought here in the '30-s, it became one of the most important fur bearing animals in a very short time. The musk-rat is a good example of successful acclimatization of animals in our parts.
The only representative of mammals, living in water, is the Baikal seal (nerpa as it is called locally). Long-long ago the forbears of this animal were sea animals and used to dwell in the Arctic Ocean. One of the largest lay places of the Baikal seal is situated in Ushkhany island. In spring seals can be more often seen on the ice in the northern part of Baikal, but in summer they move South. Baikal seal is our endemic. Though the quantity of population does not cause much anxiety and concern, frequent intrusion on the part of man and pollution of Baikal water have a drastic effect on this unique animal.
It is next to impossible to give a comprehensive description of the live Nature of Baikal and other water-bodies of the region.
Baikal and its environs are a land of mysteries, a laboratory of live nature, a dream of any student of nature. The Siberian Sea is powerful, but as any unique natural phenomenon it demands careful and loving attention. To protect Baikal is the sacred duty of every generation of the people inhabiting the Earth.