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 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 Mandrill

The largest of all monkeys, the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) is a vividly unique primate. The males have an unmistakable appearance – easily identifiable by the sky-blue and scarlet-red skin on their face, as well as an ombre of galaxy fading into crimson on their rump. This spectacular colouration makes the mandrill one of the most colourful of all mammals. Controlled by hormones, these colours grow brighter and starker when an individual gets excited. But these monkeys possess far more wonders than just their vivid skin.

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A dominant male mandrill foraging on the forest floor.

Found mainly in tropical rainforests across Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, the mandrill is an extremely social animal. They live in troops (occasionally called ‘hordes’) usually consisting of a dominant male, several females, a group of youngsters, and various non-breeding, lower-ranking males. These hordes can be colossal; sometimes several groups merge to form troops of 200 or more. However, mandrill society is not a tranquil utopia full of fun and games. It has a strict hierarchy. Mandrills have long canine teeth used principally for fighting and in display. Dominant males advertise their dominance with their intense colouration, and a temperament to match. Conflict can be deadly.

Generally, males weigh around 30kg whereas females usually weigh less than half of that, with an average weight of 12kg. Mandrills are one of the most sexually dimorphic animals, meaning the two sexes exhibit different characteristics. Whilst the males have this bulky and vivid image, the females have a far less obnoxious appearance. The female’s colouration is darker, but that does not mean they lack character; female mandrills have the vital role of raising the next generation.

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A female (left) grooming a male (right).

Primarily terrestrial primates, mandrills forage on the ground for fruits, roots, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Although, they have been known to consume the young of other species of monkey, and even small antelope when desperately hungry. Mandrills have short, but fully opposable thumbs – like those of the great apes – for grasping food and manipulating objects. They also have powerful jaw muscles, allowing them to crush tough plant foods.

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Sadly, the mandrill is considered vulnerable by the ICUN. They are often hunted for bushmeat, and many African cultures consider them a delicacy. In some areas, they are considered a pest because they will destroy crops of local villages, and are subsequently killed. Deforestation, urbanisation and the growth of agriculture are also rapidly constricting their natural habitat. Thankfully, conservation and re-introduction schemes are helping to conserve the mandrill population. Charles Darwin once said “no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner as the adult male mandrill’s”. Such an impressive mammal deserves protection.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/m/mandrill/

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

https://www.monkeyworlds.com/mandrill/

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

The Lion

With the recent release of the live-action Lion King movie trailer and the next episode of Dynasties focusing on a pride of lions airing later tonight, I thought this fascinating feline would be a perfect species to talk about today. The lion (Panthera leo) is Africa’s apex predator and the only cat that lives in groups, known as prides. A lion pride usually consists of a few males, related females and cubs although as the males grow up, they will leave the pride and establish their own family elsewhere.

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Lion prides are exceptionally loving and intimate; they try to keep their bonds strong.

Once upon a time, lions roamed across a vast portion of the Old World; from Greece to India. However, lions have since been eradicated from Europe and only a small population of Asiatic lions remains in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, western India. African lions, which once roamed throughout the continent, are now only found in certain hotspots dotted across sub-Saharan Africa. They are mainly found in grassy plains and savannas, especially areas with large trees, such as acacia trees, that provide a nice bit of shade to keep the lions cool.

Lions are sexually dimorphic – this means that males and females exhibit different characteristics, aside from their genitalia. The main difference in lions is that males develop a thick mane as they grow up whereas females do not. Both sexes display a remarkable, golden coat and a muscular build, sometimes faint spots may be seen on their legs and underparts which they acquired when they were a cub.

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A lion cub displaying their faint spots adapted for camouflage.

Males usually take on the role of defending the pride’s territory whilst females do most of the hunting. Groups of females will often work together to bring down large prey – usually ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as plains zebra, blue wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thomson’s gazelle, gemsbok and even giraffes. After a group hunt, the pride will squabble over the kill, with those at the top of the social order getting first pick whilst those at the bottom of the pecking order (cubs) will have to sit and wait their turn.

Although lions are an apex predator, that doesn’t mean they will pass on a free meal. As opportunists, they will occasionally steal kills from hyenas or wild dogs. Lions and spotted hyenas occupy a very similar ecological niche, and that results in a lot of competition between these two species. These two carnivores will often fight each other for meals and territory, causing some nasty injuries. If you watch Episode 3 of Dynasties at 8pm later tonight (GMT+0), you will see how the competition between these two fierce species can lead to some rather gruesome scenes.

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An image of pure majesty.

Life as a lion is not easy. But on top of all their natural threats, they also suffer at the hands of us humans. Habitat loss and conflict with local people are their major threats and they are thus listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Lions are such adaptable hunters that they will seek out livestock in local villages, and the locals often respond with violence. Lions play such a crucial role in our global culture – in sculptures, in films, in paintings, in literature, in sport and in national flags. They are the quintessential image of bravery, resilience and collaboration. Therefore, lions must be protected and appreciated because they are truly wonderful creatures.