Arctic Cruising and Discovering the Walrus

The walrus is a remarkable pinniped that almost seems as though it is taxonomically somewhere between the eared seals and earless seals. It differs from the earless seals in that its hind feet can be positioned beneath the body in order to walk on land, the fore limbs provide the main power stroke for locomotion in water, there are claws only on the middle three digits of each flipper, and there is sexual dimorphism (the male grows to about 1,230 kg, or 2,700 lbs, which is 50% larger than the female). Although walruses are seemingly more closely related to the eared seals on account of their numerous shared characteristics, they are similar to the earless seals in that they have lost their external ear pinnae. 

Unlike all the other pinnipeds, the walrus has very little fur, and relies almost entirely on its thick layers of skin and subcutaneous, oilrich fat (blubber) to insulate itself from the intense cold. This feature is reminiscent of the totally marine mammals, such as cetaceans and sirenians (sea cows and dugongs), except walruses can actually climb out of the water whenever they wish, something great to see on an Arctic cruise. Their great bulk makes moving around on land somewhat cumbersome, but they do surprisingly well…especially when compared to the slow shoreside movements typical of earless seals, such as harp seals and ringed seals. They don’t seem to mind the presence of humans, if they move slowly and keep to a reasonable distance. Polar bears are a different matter, however, because they can catch and kill the younger animals. The adults are too big and powerful and possess very thick skin and enormous tusks that continue to grow throughout life. All these characteristics make for a very tough and dangerous adversary for the polar bear. In fact, we have to be very careful and cautious when near walruses, because they really are potentially dangerous animals and have been known to attack Zodiacs with their tusks. Both sexes possess tusks, which are actually just modified upper canine teeth. The tusks are used for fighting and hauling out on ice floes, but not for digging in the bottom sand for prey as was previously believed. 

Walruses feed primarily on bivalves (clams and mussels), which they root out of the sea bottom with their short, stiff, whisker bristles, and then they literally suck the meat out of the shell. Some larger mollusks are crushed with their heavy, dense molars, but surprisingly, they swallow almost none of the crushed shell material…only the meat. Walruses have also been known to kill and eat small seals, as well as fish. 

Mating apparently takes place during Winter and Spring, and the single calf is born about 15 months later in late Spring or Summer after a gestation of about 11 months. The calf stays with its mother for nearly two years, even though lactation only lasts about 18 months. Therefore, female walruses only breed once every two years.

Scientists have learned that walruses move freely between Svalbard and Fran Josef Land, and therefore constitute a single population. The walrus population of Svalbard was nearly extirpated by the early 1950s, when the species was given full protection there in 1952. It is thought that there is now a population of about 2,500 walruses in Svalbard, but the population oddly consists primarily of males.  Females tend to concentrate more in the eastern regions. Walruses are very sociable and often form groups, especially when searching for mussels and clams on the sea floor and when hauling out on land.  We also often encounter them lying on ice-floes or fast ice.

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