Walruses are the largest northern mammal save whales. Their scientific name, Odebenus rosmarus, means "tooth walking sea horse." Of the two sub species of walrus—the Atlantic and Pacific—the Pacific walrus is larger. There are somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 walrus worldwide. They live exclusively in Arctic waters around Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Russia and Scandinavia. [Source: Richard Mathews, Smithsonian magazine; G. Carleton Ray, National Geographic, October 1979 ☺]
A male walrus is called a bull. A female is called a cow. Young are called cubs. A group is used to be called a herd. Atlantic and Pacific walrus inhabit moving pack ice and rocky islands in the Arctic and subarctic. All have tusks. Males have larger ones than females. The tusks are believed to help them dig up and suck clams from the muddy sea bottom but this may not be the case (See Below). Their coarse whiskers help them locate their food.
Their only natural enemies beside men are polar bears and occasionally a killer whales. Where polar bears hunt walrus they normally charge the herd and hope to grasp a straggling calf. Polar bears have been observed causing walruses to stampede and trample one another and then feeding on the carcasses. Otherwise, polar bears can be scared off with a display of tusks. Killer whales are usually undeterred because they kill walruses and other large mammals by ramming them and crushing their thoracic cavity.
Walruses are difficult and expensive to study and they have little impact on people and thus little is known about the details of walrus life. Walrus numbers have declined. The disappearance of Arctic ice is blamed. With ice flows farther from shore the walruses have dive deeper and longer to find food. In some cases summer sea ice receded beyond the shallow continental shelf, making food very difficult to get.
Walruses have an average lifespan of 40 years. They are huge animals, weighing up to two tons and reaching lengths of four meters. A 7.5-centimeters (three-inch) layer of blubber (muscle and fat mixture) helps keep walrus warm. Although awkward and ungainly on land walruses are quite graceful in the water, swimming with alternating side sweeps of the fins almost like a human swimmer doing the crawl. They can dive as deep as 80 meters (250 feet) and stay submerged for perhaps half an hour. Generally they dive in depths less than 30 meters (100 feet) and stay submerged about five minutes.
Walruses have a basketball-size inflatable pharyngeal pouch that helps maintain buoyancy and serves as a resonance chambers to amplify sounds. During deep dives or extremely cold conditions blood is pumped from the blubber to underlying tissues to maintain the animal’s body temperature (about 98 degrees F like humans), which makes the animal looked bleached. When it warms up again the walrus reddish brown color returns.
Both male and female walruses have broad whiskered muzzles and tusks, although the male tusks are usually longer. There is no evidence that walruses use their tusks for feeding, in fact they seem to get in the way at the high number of broken tusks seems to testify. Tusks seem to be uses mainly for self defense and chopping breathing holes in ices. Some scientist believe they determine status within the group.
It cold be argued that the tusks are used by males to fight during the mating season. But then why do females have them? Beached walruses constantly jab each with their tusks. Blood is often visible especially around the neck. Most of the jabbing is done with far less than full force. Some jabbed walrus act as is they barely feel it. The walrus's hide is so thick that when animals fight they are rarely hurt.
The major events of a walrus’s life—eating, courting, mating—takes place in the sea. Most of their out-of-water time on ice flows and a small islands is spent sleeping. During the winter walruses haul out of the water usually at night or midday and stay on land or ice for 40 or so hours then enter into the water for one to three days, without any sign of a 24 hour rhythm. In the summer they average around seven days at sea and rest on land for r two days.
Walruses are extremely curious animals. On a number of occasion they have hooked their tusks over the gunwales of boats. And what are people supposed to do when this happens? You put on your mittens and gently lift the head out. If you don't put on mittens the warmth of your hands might panic the animal.
Walrus head out to sea in groups of four, eight or sometimes a dozen. They amass in huge groups, sometimes with several hundred, or even thousands, of animals at places known as "haul outs." When they congregate around ice flows they rarely travel more than a couple kilometers away from the ice flow while the ice flow itself may travel 100 kilometers.
Female and baby walruses communicate with "woof talk" while rutting bulls make knocking and bell noises reminiscent of the familiar folk drumming "shave and a haircut, two bits!"☺
Male and female walruses meet and mate in largely mysterious rituals that take place in the darkness of the Arctic winter. Dominant males establish harems like dominant male seals and fight of rivals in violent battles. Females give birth in the spring and forage from ice flows and nurse their young from ice flows in the north during the summer.
Walrus Feeding Habits
Walrus feed mostly on clams and snails—and occasionally sea squirts, worms, sea cucumbers, snails and crustaceans. They catch a fish now and then and sometimes accidently swallow ocean sediment and bits of sea plants. Walruses need over a hundred pound of food a day, which translates to 800 large soft-shell clams.☺
Walruses often feed in groups, diving and ascending together. They use their muzzle and whiskers to root and feel for food at the bottom of the ocean like a wild pig. It was once though that walruses used their tusks to pry open mollusk shells but now it seems the tusk serve no purpose in feeding. When a walrus finds a mollusk its lips purse the shell and a power suck slurps out the soft animal inside.
Walruses do most of their feeding in the winter when they hang out along the edge of the southern edge of the ice pack and forage from ice flows. It is not unusual for a walruses to head out to sea 150 miles or more. The slurping, sucking vacuum action of a walrus muzzle is so strong that it has sucked the paint off walls, pulled in five-pound plugs from the bottom of tanks and herrings from their skeletons.
The remains of ringed-seals and bearded-seals have been found in their stomachs. It is not clear whether the seals were killed by the walruses or already dead when the walruses found them. One Norwegian who witnessed an attack on a seal told National Geographic, "The walrus hit the seal in the water to stun it, then dragged it onto the ice and stabbed it with its tusks."
Walrus Mass Gatherings and Suicides
On Round Island in Alaska and Big Diomede Island and three beaches on the Siberian coast in Russia, thousands of male walruses gather from the spring to fall while females are raising their young on the ice. Around 12,000 gather on the beaches of Round Island alone. Describing the mass of male walruses on Round Island, Richard Mathews wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Wine-sack bodies slump in all conceivable positions, long white tusks protruding the mass in every conceivable direction..Most lie torpid, eyes closed silent, unbothered by flies and feces coating their extravagant flanks. Others jockey for position, wallow seaward right over fellows amidst a cacophony of snorts and clicks as jabbing tusks meet." Walruses that suddenly find them in a relatively walrus-free area on the beach generally try and move towards the other walruses.
In August 1996, 70 two-ton bull walrus, for some unexplained reason, climbed up a hill on an Alaskan beach and waddled off the edge of a cliff and fell 100 feet to their deaths. Scientist managed to turn back 150 bulls. Offering one theory for the strange behavior a scientist told Newsweek, "It's real herd response, just like with caribou or lemmings. Once the first one falls, it is too late for the second or third or forth to turn around." In 1994, 42 walrus died. In 1995, 17 died under similar circumstances. The walrus climbed a hill to escape a storm. Once one started climbing the other followed. Most slide down some grass and fell over a small cliff to their deaths.
An estimated 3,500 walruses were spotted on September 12, 2009, at Icy Cape, Alaska. Two days later, 131 mostly young animals were found trampled to death. Biologists say the walruses were likely killed by a stampede caused by a a polar bear, human hunter, low flying airplane or other disturbance.
Walruses and Humans
Eskimos have hunted walruses for centuries, using nearly every part of the animal for some purpose: hides for boats, blubber for food, whiskers for toothpicks. During the 19th and 20th century the walruses were slaughtered for their ivory and the oil in their blubber. The animals were easy prey for hunters and their numbers were greatly reduced. Walrus numbers rebounded have increased dramatically since then.☺
The Russians have harvested walrus meat primarily to feed animals on fur farms. Walrus meat is tough and coarse-textured but is tasty and lean. Trappers once used walrus hide as rope, no other animal hide is as strong they say. Walruses are sometimes hunted illegally. A pair walrus tusks can bring in as much as $1,000.
Walruses occasionally kill people. The scent of humans makes walruses panicky. The scents of walruses makes humans wish they were congested with a head cold. There has been some discussion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of placing the Pacific walrus on the endangered list. In the 2009, scientists estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 walruses gathered near Point Lay on Alaska's northwest shore in September as summer sea ice receded beyond the shallow continental shelf.
One fisherman told journalist Gordon Young, "A few years ago I wintered over on one of the small islands near Svabard. Suddenly heard what I thought was an airplane. I grabbed my lantern and rushed outside-it turned out to be a big bull walrus, sleeping on a passing ice floe. By hell that walrus sure could snore." [Source: Gordon Young, National Geographic, August 1978 [**]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016