It’s smarter, more dangerous, and more musical, than you might think.
by Jeremy Berlin
On ice floes and rocky beaches in the far North Atlantic, cinnamon brown blobs pile up in living heaps. Some weigh more than a ton. Some are longer than ten feet. Each is a rumpled portrait of buckteeth and whiskers, deep scars and bloodshot eyes. They nap, burp, squabble, and bark—“something between the mooing of a cow and the deepest baying of a mastiff,” noted a 19th-century explorer.
Walruses may seem familiar from Beatles lyrics and Lewis Carroll verses, but most of us will never see a herd in the wild. And few photographers have documented this dangerous, musical, and socially sophisticated pinniped, a fin-footed kin to seals, sea lions, and sea elephants.“I used myself as bait,” says Paul Nicklen, who spent three weeks aiming his lens at Atlantic walruses with the help of Swedish diver Göran Ehlmé.
“I sat on the shore, and the walruses would come along. They’d get curious. But they have to hit you with their tusks to figure out what you are. And for a walrus to hit one of us can be lethal…”
… are year-round residents of the arctic oceans. Their huge bulk is an adaptation to the cold of the long arctic winter, lowering their surface area-to-volume ratio to keep more heat inside. Males can grow up to 12 feet (3.6 m) long and weigh an average of 2000 lbs (900 kg). They also wear a very thick skin - the skin itself can be up to 4 inches (10 cm) thick on parts of their body, and the blubber layer underneath an additional 6 inches (15 cm).
Their most familiar feature is, of course, their tusks; these can grow up to 3.3 feet (1 m) long. They’re used mainly for dominance and other social displays, and the strongest males with the largest tusks are usually at the head of a group. They may also use their tusks to break holes in the ice and to help pull themselves out of the water, but the long teeth aren’t used in feeding. Walruses eat crustaceans and invertebrates from the sea floor in the shallow areas just offshore.
They find their prey using their faceful of whiskers, called vibrissae. Each is exceptionally sensitive, and with them the walrus can distinguish food items as small as a tenth of an inch (3 mm). Walruses have two other interesting anatomical features: they have an air pouch in their throat that they can inflate to allow them to hang suspended vertically in the water to sleep; and they have the largest baculum (the bone in the penis) of any animal, both relative to body size and in absolute terms, at up to 25 inches (63 cm) long.
The Pacific walrus faces warming temperatures and a loss of its habitat. These walruses depend on sea ice to birth and take care of their young, but melting glaciers means that they have to venture onto land for food, which can often lead to overcrowding and stampedes, according to the National Wildlife Federation. While the current size of the walrus population is unknown, it was last estimated to be about 129,000 in a 2006 survey.
Photo: Rodney Ungwiluk, Jr. Photography via Getty Images
Walruses use their tusks to haul themselves out of the water. Their scientific name Odobenus comes from Greek words meaning “tooth walk.” Here a close-up of a walrus in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia.
(via: Live Science) (photo: Sarah Sonsthagen, USGS)
A “killer walrus” thought to have terrorized the North Pacific 15 million years ago may not have been such a savvy slayer after all, researchers say.
A new analysis of fossil evidence of the prehistoric beast shows it was more of a fish-eater than an apex predator with a bone-crushing bite.
Traces of the middle Miocene walrus, named Pelagiarctos thomasi, were first found in the 1980s in the Sharktooth Hill bone bed of California. A chunk of a robust jawbone and sharp pointed teeth, which resembled those of the bone-cracking hyena, led researchers to believe the walrus ripped apart birds and other marine mammals in addition to the fish that modern walruses eat today.
But a more complete lower jaw and teeth from the long-gone species were recently discovered in the Topanga Canyon Formation near Los Angeles. Researchers say the shape of the teeth from this new specimen suggest the walrus was unlikely adapted to regularly feed on large prey. Instead, they think it was a generalist predator, feasting on fish, invertebrates and the occasional warm-blooded snack…
The searchable Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology boasts nearly 150,000 digital audio recordings, covering about 9,000 noisy species, with a total run time of 7,513 hours. Though there’s an emphasis on birds, the collection contains sounds from across the animal kingdom, from elephants to elephant seals.
Some of the highlights of the collection include recordings of the curl-crested manucode, a bird-of-paradise in New Guinea, whose otherworldly calls sound like UFOs landing in a sci-fi movie. There’s also a clip of a song sparrow recorded in 1929 by Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen, which is the earliest recording in the collection…
Arctic summer sea ice is the walrus equivalent of a maternity ward and a mall food court.
But in the past five years, warming temperatures have caused substantial ice melt and left little to no ice for resting between feeding dives or giving birth, leading Pacific walruses to change their habits, U.S. Geological Survey scientists announced at a news conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday (Nov. 14).
When sea ice disappeared, the bewhiskered, bellowing mammals spent more time on land and foraged close to shore, instead of at their rich feeding grounds at sea. Females also gave birth on land, putting babies at risk of trampling by adults. In addition, walruses spent more time traveling at sea, putting them at risk of running into ships or other human activities. The research was presented at the news conference and published in this month’s issue of the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series…
Larger than their Atlantic walrus cousins, Pacific walruses can weigh up to 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms). Once hunted heavily, the biggest threat to walruses in recent times is climate change. As ocean habitats warm, receding sea ice is forcing the beasts to stay on land in overcrowded conditions.
Grist: Meet New York Aquarium’s adorable new rescued baby walrus
by Jess Zimmerman
Baby walrus calf Mitik was discovered, orphaned and ailing, off the coast of Alaska in July. Now he’s all grown up — he’s still a baby, but he weighs 234 pounds, which is pretty grown indeed — and he’s traveling all the way from Alaska to New York City, possibly with his head in his keeper’s lap the whole way.
Mitik won’t be on display in his new home at the New York Aquarium until spring, so until then, you’ll need to watch videos of him on YouTube. Back before Mitik had a name, we posted this one of him snuggling with an Alaska Sea Life Center worker.
The New York Aquarium already has two walruses, Kula and Nuka, but they’re such social creatures that it’s important they never be left alone. Since Nuka is getting up there in years, the aquarium is bringing in Mitik as a backup so Kula won’t be lonely if she dies. But it’s not just for Kula’s sake — they’re also taking Mitik because he’s an orphan who needs a home, and because he’s a super-cute chubby-wubby baby-woobly walrus-face…
In the pinniped family, walruses are second in size only to elephant seals. Their flippers are flexible like hands, and each flipper has five digits.
They have a broad head, small eyes, and can be recognized by their tusks. (Both male and females walruses have tusks.)
Walrus use their tusks to fight, to defend against predators and to haul their massive bodies out of the ocean and on to ice. Those characteristic tusks, which are actually long teeth, can weigh up to 12 pounds (5 kg) each.
The walrus’ whiskers are not hairs, but actually extremely sensitive, tactile organs, much like a cat’s whiskers. The walrus uses these whiskers to seek out food along the seafloor…