70: The Wonderful Walrus

This week’s animal spotlight is going to a lovable Arctic giant, the walrus. Around since the last ice age, they have had a lot of time to adapt to their Arctic Ocean home. We will be looking at some of these physical adaptations, exploring their personalities, and examining some of tools and artforms that have come from walrus hunting over a century ago. Enjoy!

Walrus coming up for air (Picture: Andrew Trites, NOAA)

Anatomy

Walruses are instantly recognizable thanks to their colossal tusks, whiskers, and bulk. These giant relatives of seals are marine mammals, living along the coasts in stretches of water between Greenland and northern Canada, Alaska and East Russia, and along some of the islands north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean. They are big, with males from the Pacific subspecies weighing on average 1,700kg, and from the Atlantic subspecies around 900kg. Females tend to weigh a little less.

Perhaps their most notable feature are their two huge tusks. These can be found in males and females, and are actually elongated canine teeth. They can be up to 1m in length, generally a little longer and thicker for males, who use them to fight one another and to attract the attention of the ladies in displays. The tusks are also used to create and maintain ice holes, which walruses use to come up for air, and to help the walrus pull itself out of the water onto the ice. As they are constantly in use, these tusks get worn away at the edges, but continue growing throughout their lives, balancing out their size.

Their other notable feature is their big whiskers, officially termed vibrissae. They can have anything between 400 and 700 vibrissae, each up to 30cm in length. The vibrissae each have a blood supply and are attached to nerves making them very sensitive. This allows the walrus to feel what is going on very close to them in areas where their eyes can’t reach, like feeling the shape of something they might eat. Unlike us, they can’t use their flippers to hold food up to inspect it, so these vibrissae play a very important role, basically acting like the touch function of fingers.

Another perhaps obvious feature is their thick layer of blubber. Their skin can reach 10cm in thickness, and their blubber a further 15cm helping to keep them super insulated in the freezing Arctic waters. A final feature worth a mention is their pharyngeal pouch. This is an air sac which is on both sides of the walrus’s windpipe. They can fill it with many litres of air, making their head float above the water. This allows them to sleep in the water without risk of drowning. To prevent them from floating off into the ocean, they sometimes simply hook a tusk onto a stable bit of ice to anchor them as they snooze.

Walruses use their whiskers or vibrissae to feel areas they cannot see, such as the area in front of their face when they are grazing allowing them to identify food

Lifestyle

Walrus’s spend two thirds of their life in the water, sleeping, swimming, mating and giving birth there. Females also nurse their young in the water, using their pharyngeal pouch to float as their offspring suckle. Females become sexually mature at around 6 years of age, gestate for 15-16months, and can have a total lifespan in the wild of around 20-30 years. Breeding occurs in late winter, around January to March, after which the walruses migrate to coastlines where they can congregate in their hundreds or occasionally thousands. There they are very sociable creatures, snorting and roaring at one another amicably, although they can get a bit aggressive during the mating season. Wildlife documentarists and walrus hunters have noted that when walruses congregate, they not only make a lot of noise, but they also have a very notable stench, sometimes being smelled before being seen.

The diet of walruses consists mainly of things sifted from the ocean floor, like clams, mussels and shrimps. However, they are quite opportunistic so will eat whatever’s going, with some reports of them eating seals or even sea birds. They in turn do not have many predators. It would after all need a brave creature to take on something their size. They are hunted by polar bears and orca, and have historically been hunted by many people, although nowadays only the indigenous Chukchi, Yup’ik and various Inuit groups are allowed to kill a small number of them each year.

Walruses can congregate in their thousands along beaches and rocky crags, creating a lot of noise and smell

Scrimshaw

Indigenous groups hunting walrus tend to use all parts of the animal, using the meat for food, the bones for tools, and the oil for warmth and light. The hide could even be used for rope and the intestines made waterproof outerwear.  Europeans, it seems, were less impressed with the taste of walrus, with some explorers saying they only ate it when really desperate for food, although Europeans did still hunt it for blubber and meat. However, in the 19th and 20th century, out of the animal’s ivory tusks, as well as the bones and teeth of whales, came an artform known as scrimshaw.

It is thought to originally have started when sailors on long voyages near the poles, perhaps on whaling ships, used these waste products to build tools. On whaling ships however there was a lot of free time in the evenings as it was too dangerous to try to catch whales in the dark. Sailors started to fill these hours with carving on the tusks and bones, using a sailing needle to create grooves and filling these with soot, tobacco juice or the black from candle wicks. These scrimshaw artworks vary in quality, but there are some truly stunning pieces. Before this, these materials were also used to create ivory or bone carvings. In fact, the famous 12th century Lewis Chessmen are carved from walrus tusks.

On the left an example of scrimshaw carving, and on the right the Lewis Chessmen, carved out of walrus tusk.

More than just a friendly moustachioed face, walruses’ are creatures who are highly adapted to their environment, from air sacs to help them float in their sleep, to whiskers that let them feel their way along the ocean floor whilst foraging. Not only this but they have provided materials to help sustain many indigenous groups’ ways of life, and provided an outlet of creativity to sailors for hundreds of years through the artform of scrimshaw. Whilst they have few predators and are not being overhunted, walruses are facing a struggle. The loss of sea ice in the Arctic means that there is less ice for them to rest and sit on. This means that they have to travel further for food, and on the ice that is remaining, or the small beaches and rocky crags, thousands of these animals are forced into a tight space leading many to be crushed or even to be shoved off cliffs in the fight for space. As with many creatures in the Arctic, they rely on the ice and suffer in its absence. As they survived the change from the ice age to today, perhaps with our help they can survive to have their noisy boisterous meet ups for many centuries to come.

For more info:

The life of a young walrus and it’s mother from National Geographic:

Some of the difficulties faces by walruses due to a reduction in sea ice from David Attenborough’s Our Planet (note some viewers may find this distressing):

Music: kongano.com

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