The unique life that's evolved over millions of years in Earth's deepest body of freshwater is under threat, says Anson Mackay.
Lake Baikal in central Asia is one of the natural wonders of our planet. Known as the 'Galapagos of Russia', it contains a unique flora and fauna - most of the 2000 plus plants and animals that live in its deep waters are endemic - found nowhere else.
A top predator in the lake, Pusa sibirica, is one of the world's very few species of freshwater seals, and up to 40 per cent of Baikal's species have not even been described yet. It is a major biodiversity hotspot, declared a World Heritage Site by the UN in 1996.
Baikal's endemic species have evolved over tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of years, to occupy niches that may never have been disturbed before the last three or four decades.
The lake's unique ecology stems from its physical properties. Baikal is the oldest lake in world; it started forming over 25 million years ago when a fissure in the continent began to open up. It is also the planet's deepest lake, averaging 744m deep and going down to 1642m in places, due to a tectonic pulse that made the rift's shoulders rise up while the bottom continued to deepen.
Astonishingly, Lake Baikal accounts for over a fifth of all surface fresh water on Earth, outside polar ice caps and glaciers. And unlike other deep lakes, it contains dissolved oxygen right down to the bottom.
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