>Nature determines everything in the North, and walruses are well suited to their ecological niche. One of the largest pinnipeds, walruses can weigh more than 3,000 pounds. But their tusks, blubber and muscle may not be enough to see them through the human-caused changes to their environment. Climate warming means much less Arctic ice now and absent ice packs during more of the year than before. Walruses and other Arctic mammals in general are highly vulnerable to these effects of climate warming due to their total connectedness with sea ice for all essential aspects of their lives: traveling, hunting, feeding and, most important of all, breeding.
>The three subspecies of walrus are the Atlantic walrus, the Pacific walrus and the Laptev walrus. Humans have exploited walruses, like many other species, for centuries. Hunters devastated the Atlantic subspecies between 1750 and 1950, when walrus blubber was precious for use as lubricating oil, their thick hide was used for leather, and their tusks were a source of ivory. Though hunting has mostly been banned now, walrus numbers have recovered very slowly because females are not sexually mature until they are 6 to 9 years old, and mature females bear just one calf every three years.
>Walruses eat sea worms, mussels and clams, which they suck from the seafloor. They find food with the help of up to 700 mystacial vibrissae that cover their faces; extremely sensitive tactile organs, the vibrissae are a broad mat of stiff bristles around the walruses' tusks that help them differentiate shapes. Walruses' eyesight is not as sharp as that of other pinnipeds because acute vision is not necessary for their survival since they feed on sedentary bottom-dwelling animals. After foraging, they usually congregate on land to rest and digest, yawning and stretching their whiskers with hollow grunts. Like whales, they blow water when they surface after dives, but they use both nostrils and their mouths to exhale.
>Polar bears require the rich meat and blubber of marine mammals; they prefer to prey on seals but will hunt walruses if no seals are available.
>Walrus haulouts are like swarms in slow motion. The animals are gregarious by nature and spend prolonged periods in their large colonies in quiet stillness until suddenly chaos breaks out, usually caused by one walrus trying to shift position and in doing so jostling others nearby. There is a lot of grunting and bellowing, a little tusk jabbing and lots of blubber slapping. Then after a short while everything settles down again until the next chaos.
>Some individuals are very curious. We did not expect the walruses to be so inquisitive, and we were surprised when they swam toward us in shallow water without warning. Being charged by a wild animal weighing nearly a ton is a memorable experience. Each individual seemed to have its own personality; some were so shy we were unable to approach and take pictures.
>Polar bears are adaptable and opportunistic, traits that will be useful to them
>as the Arctic warms.
>as the Arctic warms.
>Although walruses are clumsy and slow moving on land, they undergo an astonishing transformation in the water, becoming dynamic and graceful. Like all Arctic animals, their ability to adapt to a changing environment will be important in the years ahead.
>© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2018