The Walrus

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.

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Walruses are forced to scale perilous cliffs.

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.

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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).

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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.

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Walruses are trapped into chaotic, crowded herds.

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,
Ewan.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/w/walrus/

https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/to-do/wildlife/walrus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walrus

https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/06/climate-change-causing-walruses-plunge-deaths-9126630/

https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/top-10-ways-can-stop-climate-change/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Topi

Antelopes are some of my favourite animals to write about. Seemingly mundane to some, I just love the elegance and majesty of these hoofed mammals. When I picture an African sunrise, I see antelopes like impala and topi wandering across the amber horizon, just carrying out normal day-to-day activities. I think that it’s the simplicity and freedom of antelopes that draws me towards them.

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A male topi scanning over his territory.

Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) are no exception to this. A subspecies of the common tsessebe, topi may not look like the most glamorous ungulate (hoofed mammal) but they are certainly dignified and graceful. They inhabit the savannas and floodplains of East and Central Africa, where they graze on the freshest grass they can find.

Uniquely patterned, the topi has a reddish-brown coat with patches of glossy black on their upper legs and face. They also have two ringed horns which curve backwards. Topi are surprisingly territorial, including both males and females. Males will often stand on termite mounds to assert their dominance over their territory and look out for predators. Females will also help to defend their territory from any potential threats. Fights can often break out between individuals as they compete for breeding rights.

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It is thought that topi have one of the most diverse social organisations of all the antelopes. Females only come into estrus (a point of the reproductive cycle whereby females are ready to mate) for only one day every year, so mating season can get very intense. Both females and males will compete with each other to ensure their genes are passed on to the next generation. Envious females may even aggressively disrupt copulations – eventually chaos ensues.

Topi are built for speed. Their streamlined shape and lean build allows them to rapidly evade predators such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and painted wolves. Their acute hearing and keen eyesight also gives them an advantage over predators.

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Calves are well camouflaged in their environment.

Topi have quite a long gestation period (8 months) in which they give birth to a single calf. As with other antelope species, newborns have an incredible ability, they are able to wonder around and follow their mother immediately after birth. Calves are lighter in colouration, allowing them to perfectly blend in with their dry and arid savanna habitat. Topi are currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) since their future, like thousands of other extant species on earth, remains uncertain.

 

Sources:

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/topi

https://www.britannica.com/animal/topi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topi

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Slow Loris

Furry but fierce, the slow loris is the world’s only venomous genus of primate. Their genus (Nycticebus) consists of several species, all of which live in South East Asia. Aptly named, this arboreal mammal moves slowly through the tropical forests of S.E. Asia. Their nocturnal lifestyle helps them to avoid competing with other diurnal primates that share their habitat, as well as staying hidden in the darkness.

Slow Loris

The slow loris is a master of stealth. When ambling through the dense foliage, they make little to no noise. If spotted, they will freeze, remaining motionless until the threat is gone. Their natural predators include snakes, hawk-eagles and, shockingly, even orangutans. Therefore, slow lorises must stay sharp and furtive.

Omnivores, slow lorises mainly feed on insects, fruits and tree-sap. They have a few adaptations to ease the process of feeding. Firstly, they have a long, narrow tongue – one of the longest of all primates – to reach tree-sap stashed in cracks and crevices. Their hands and feet have a firm and wide grip, allowing them to maintain balance and lunge forward to capture a meal. This grip also enables them to eat using both hands whilst hanging upside down from a branch.

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Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the slow loris is their venom. The toxin is obtained from their brachial gland (a gland found on their upper arm). A slow loris will lick this gland, activating the secretion of the toxin. When mixed with saliva, this venom can cause painful swelling and near fatal anaphylactic shock in humans – though incidents are very rare. The toxin is used as a deterrent to predators, however parents will also apply the toxin to their infants’ fur as a means of protection. It is thought the venom is obtained from the variety of distasteful and toxic insects that make up the slow loris’ diet.

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The slow loris has a large cultural significance. Thought to be the gatekeepers to the heavens, they are often used in traditional medicine to ‘ward off evil’. Unfortunately, this is causing a decline in the population of slow lorises. Another major threat is the wildlife trade – they are often captured and kept as exotic pets. People sharing pictures and videos of these ‘exotic pets’ continues to fuel a vicious circle, so please don’t like or share any viral videos of these animals circulating online. Along with habitat loss, these threats are endangering the survival of slow lorises. Reducing the demand for slow lorises on the wildlife trade is the best way to stop the constant exploitation of these uniquely stealthy creatures.

 

Sources:

https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/explore-the-zoo/slow-loris

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_loris

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/microsites/the-slow-loris/slow-loris-facts/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Polar Bear

Last Wednesday (27/02/19) was world polar bear day – a day dedicated to the world’s largest carnivore on land. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a powerful predator, excellently adapted to the Arctic habitat in which it lives. Polar bears spend most of their time on Arctic sea ice where they hunt for seals. However, they are equally at home in the water. Their large front paws are webbed, making them strong swimmers. Polar bears have even been recorded travelling hundreds of miles from land.

Polar Bear

Polar bears are considered hypercarnivores – animals with a diet that is more than 70% meat. This differs from other bear species, such as the The Sloth Bear, which are omnivorous. Polar bears are apex predators – they have no natural predators (excluding humans). Their main prey are seals, especially ringed and bearded seals. Polar bears have developed an ingenious hunting strategy; they will stalk breathing holes and ice edges, waiting for an unlucky seal to poke its head above the sea-surface to breathe. Their extraordinary sense of smell allows them to locate seals, even below the ice. Once located, they crush them with a mighty blow from above, and drag their corpse onto the frozen ice.

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A polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay.

Admired for their ability to survive the cold and bitter Arctic, the polar bear has developed a plethora of adaptations to help its survival. For one, polar bears have a thick white coat of insulating fur, which covers a warming layer of fat. This keeps them warm in the freezing Arctic Ocean, where winter temperatures can plummet to −50 °C. Their all-white body gives these bears great camouflage in the frosty white abyss in which they live. However, their actual skin is black. Black is the most effective colour to absorb the sun’s warming rays – another adaptation to stay warm.

Young polar bears are born in the peak of winter in a hibernation den dug by their mother. During her hibernation, she nurses her cubs for three months, breaking down her own body reserves to create rich, fatty milk. When spring arrives and their hibernation is over, the mother will spend the next two years teaching her cubs to swim, hunt, defend themselves and build their own dens.

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A mother teaching her cubs how to conquer the perilous arctic obstacles.

During the summer months, the melting ice forces these mammals to retreat to land, where they may come into contact with humans. Unfortunately, as the earth’s rising temperatures obliterate more and more of the polar bear’s habitat, life for these creatures is getting much tougher. They will struggle to stealthily hunt seals on the thinner ice; mothers will have difficulty building suitable maternity dens without the ice thawing or the den roofs caving in. In addition, hostile interactions between polar bears and humans will become all the more frequent as the sea ice melts and starving bears move south to find food on land. The fate of the polar bear is ultimately in our hands – we should do all we can to help reverse the detrimental effects of climate change which threatens so many species around the world.

 

Sources:

https://www.wwf.org.uk/wildlife/polar-bears

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/polar-bear/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_bear

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Gerenuk

Nicknamed the ‘giraffe gazelle’, the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is a long-necked antelope found in the woodland forests and open plains of the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Tanzania). At first glance, this mammal may seem rather strange, but their unique appearance only highlights the gerenuk’s superb adaptability.

Gerenuk

Like many other species – past and present – that have evolved to have a long neck, the gerenuk uses this adaptation to browse leaves, twigs and branches growing out of the reach of other antelopes. Moreover, the gerenuk can stand straight using its slender, hindlegs. Overall, this allows the gerenuk to reach vegetation 2 metres above the ground – quite a stretch considering they are less than a metre tall when on all four legs. This adaptation has proved immensely useful for the gerenuk, especially when browsing opportunities are sparse.

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The gerenuk’s long neck and slender legs allow it to reach vegetation high off the ground.

Their magnificent horns, present only on males, are lyre-shaped, resembling an ‘S’, and can reach up to 40cm in length. Their brown coat is coffee-coloured on the top but a lighter tan colour on the sides. They also have a cream-coloured underbelly and a patch of white fur around each eye. Gerenuks have quite large eyes and ears so they can easily sense when a predator is nearby.

Gerenuks live in small social groups – each herd only contains around two to six individuals – and are usually comprised of a single sex. Due to their small herds, they can fall prey to a whole host of African predators. Major predators of the gerenuk include leopards, cheetahs, lions, spotted hyenas, painted wolves, jackals and caracals. Unlike most antelopes, the gerenuk does not have a specific breeding season, meaning they have offspring throughout the year. Therefore, they most constantly be alert for predators.

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A pair of females on the look-out for potential predators.

Although their population is estimated at around 95,000 individuals, the gerenuk is under threat. Their population has fallen by 25% in the last 14 years. As human populations grow, we build more settlements, more roads and more farms which are gradually consuming this species’ natural habitat. Their current conservation status is ‘near-threatened’, but if nothing is done, they could soon be uplisted to ‘vulnerable’.

 

Sources:

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/gerenuk

https://animalcorner.co.uk/animals/gerenuk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerenuk

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.