A couple of days ago, Netflix released a stunning new series called ‘Our Planet‘. It is a nature documentary series hosted by Sir David Attenborough that aims to explore earth’s extraordinary species and wildlife spectacles. However, this 8-part series also highlights how our planet’s beauty could disappear if we do not act soon. The devastating consequences of climate change are being seen across the entire world; from the frozen poles to the deepest of seas.
I recently finished watching the second episode of Our Planet titled Frozen Worlds. The final few minutes of the episode focused on a massive herd of Pacific walruses on the north-eastern coast of Russia. It is the largest gathering of walruses in the world – secluded to a small island as the sea ice they usually live upon has retreated further north. One scene showed how hundreds of walruses on cliff faces plummet to their death as they desperately try to return to the sea. It was a harrowing but necessary scene. In this post I want to share the wonder of the walrus and the threats this tusked mammal faces. I want to share how we can help and hopefully avoid further tragedies in the future.
Native to the frozen waters of the Arctic, the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is an enormous tusked seal. They have a huge, blubbery body, long ivory tusks, and a moustache of sensitive whiskers for detecting food. The males can be twice the size of the females, weighing over a tonne, but both sexes posses tusks. Walruses are highly sociable, gathering in herds of thousands of individuals on beaches and ice floes.
Walruses are not particularly deep divers but they can remain submerged for up to 30 minutes. They have a diverse and varied diet. Their menu is predominantly made up of clams and other bivalve molluscs. However, they will readily eat shrimp, crabs, sea cucumbers, corals, tube worms and even parts of other pinnipeds (seals). Due to their size, they only really have two natural predators – orcas and polar bears.
There are three subspecies of walrus. These are (in order of increasing population) the Laptev Sea walrus (O. r. laptevi), the Atlantic walrus (O. r. rosmarus) and the Pacific walrus (O. r. divergens). I’m sure you can guess where all three are found. The Pacific walrus is the largest subspecies of walrus and one of the largest of all seals – exceeded in size by only the elephant seal.
Arguably, the most intriguing aspect of the walrus is their 1m long elongated canines – their tusks. These seemingly redundant teeth are actually a great evolutionary adaptation to their Arctic habitat. They serve a variety of uses including helping them to haul themselves out of water, break breathing holes into ice from below and win battles against rivalling males (bulls) to retain control of their females (cows).
Aside from their ivory tusks, walruses have many other adaptations making them perfectly suited to a life on the ice. For one, they have a tremendously thick layer of blubber to keep them warm in the freezing Arctic waters. Moreover, they will use their sensitive whiskers to scan the sea floor, foraging for a suitable meal. Their streamlined body and paddle-like front flippers allow them to breeze through the ocean with ease (the same cannot be said for on land).
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the walrus as ‘vulnerable’. In the 18th and 19th century the main threat for the walrus was American and European sealers and whalers who hunted the Atlantic population to almost extinction. Although hunting of walruses is still a threat to the species, the rate of killing has significantly slowed down; only certain Indigenous groups such as the Inuit are permitted to hunt them at a sustainable rate. To these communities, they provide a significant supply of meat for nutrition, tusks and bones for tools, oil for warmth, and tough hide for rope and building coverings. Global trade in walrus ivory is strictly prohibited by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Presently, the main threat to the walrus is climate change. Our planet is changing at an unprecedented rate. Our planet’s species cannot possibly keep up. As the Arctic ice retreats further and further towards the poles, walruses have fewer resting grounds to breed. This is forcing them to congregate on crowded beaches, resulting in hundreds of stampeding deaths.
Paradoxically, the walrus’ superb adaptations to Arctic life have been their downfall. As our unsustainable rate of destructive development causes greenhouse gas emissions to rise, our planet warms. Coral reefs dwindle and die. Weather conditions intensify. Migration patterns are altered. Ice melts. The effects of climate change are real and they are here.
We must stay hopeful and determined though. One person can still make a difference. By reducing our energy consumption, using greener means of transport, eating a more sustainable diet, investing in renewable sources of energy, urging governments to help and telling the world, we can help combat climate change. The shocking walrus scene on Our Planet was not enjoyable to watch, but it was vital. It inspired me to write this post and gave me an extra push to make a difference.
Thank you for reading,
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.