The Best Email I've Ever Received From a Scientist

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When I first contacted Nikolai Formozov about his paper on a 30,000-year-old squirrel originally found by Gulag prisoners, which I wrote about today, he told me he had a “few other colorful details” that didn’t make it into his paper. Would I be interested in hearing more?

I replied yes, of course, wondering how much more interesting this story could get. What he sent was magnificent.

(A note on nomenclature, which should not put you off from reading to the very end: Urocitellus parryii is the scientific name for present-day Arctic ground squirrels, and U. glacialis refers ones from the Ice Age.)

Nikolai wrote:

After we had made sense of the complicated and dramatic fate of Urocitellus parryii in northeastern Eurasia (it had once colonized the territory, then become extinct, and then re-colonized it from America), we began to wonder if there modern descendants of glacialis in Asia, if there were refugiums (shelters) from the Ice Age that still existed. Naturally, we considered Kamchatka, оne of the warmest places in the region. But we had no material from there.

At the time, my friend Igor Shpilenok, a wildlife photographer and popular blogger, was working in the Kronotskiy Wildlife Reserve on Kamchatka. From his blog, I noticed that he often saw a Red Fox, whom he had named Alisa, and that she brought ground squirrels to her puppies.

I wrote to Igor: “Where did Alisa find those ground squirrels? They should not be there (in that part of Kamchatka).”

Igor said, “Oh, they came here 20 years ago from the center of the peninsula.”

I said, “Could you ask her to collect some ground squirrels for us?”

Igor said: “Simple, I’ll trade her cookies for them. She loves cookies.”

But a strange thing happened after that. Igor wrote me “You know, now I don’t even need cookies, because after I received your letter, Alisa began leaving ground squirrels on my porch, the way cats do.”

So we received our first four specimens from Kamchatka courtesy of Alisa, and they were closely related to glacialis, as we predicted.

In our academic article, I had wanted to mention Alisa in the Acknowledgments, but this idea of mine was vetoed.