Creature Feature: Walrus

Creature Feature: Walrus

Dive beneath frozen Arctic waters to discover the fascinating world of walruses!

This month, we’re focusing on another inhabitant of the Arctic realm—the walrus! Together, we’ll explore the incredible lives of these tusked giants, the intricate web that connects them to the frozen expanses they call home, and how plastic pollution creates new challenges for our mustachioed friends.

Bracelet of the Month

Pull 5 pounds of trash from the ocean with our limited edition Walrus Bracelet, only available January 2024! 

Fun facts about walruses

  • Tusked giants: Walruses are known for their long tusks, which are actually elongated canine teeth that can grow up to three feet (about one meter) in length. These impressive tusks are present in both male and female walruses and continue to grow throughout their lives.
  • Icy acrobats: Walruses are skilled swimmers and can cover long distances in search of food. They are also capable of performing acrobatic feats such as swimming upside down with their hind flippers in the air—a behavior known as "backflipping." This unique skill showcases their agility in the water.
  • Whisker wonders: Walruses possess specialized facial features called vibrissae, which are long, sensitive whiskers. These vibrissae are not only helpful in detecting the movement of prey in dark and murky waters but also serve as a sensory tool to identify the shape and texture of objects in their environment.
  • Colossal colonies: Walruses are gregarious animals and often gather in large colonies, particularly during the breeding season. These gatherings, known as haulouts, can consist of thousands of individuals huddled closely together on ice floes or beaches.
  • Blubbery insulation: Adapted to cold Arctic waters, walruses have a thick layer of blubber that serves as insulation against the frigid temperatures. This blubber not only helps them stay warm but also provides buoyancy, making it easier for them to float in the water.
  • Surprising divers: Despite their size and bulk, walruses are capable divers that can reach depths of around 260 feet (about 80 meters) when foraging for food on the ocean floor. They use their strong flippers to propel themselves through the water with surprising agility.
  • Vocal virtuosos: Walruses are known for their diverse range of vocalizations, including bell-like calls, grunts, and roars. These sounds are used for communication within the herd, especially between mothers and calves, as well as during interactions with potential rivals.
  • Mustached munchers: Walruses primarily feed on a diet of clams, mussels, and other benthic invertebrates. To access their prey on the ocean floor, walruses use their tusks to create holes in the ice or to pry open shells, showcasing the versatility of these impressive teeth.
  • Tusk rituals: Male walruses often engage in tusk-to-tusk combat during the breeding season to establish dominance and secure mating rights. These battles can be intense but typically involve more posturing and vocalization than actual physical contact.

Ecological importance of walruses

  • Important indicators: Walruses serve as key indicators of the overall health of the Arctic marine ecosystem. Their distribution, behavior, and population trends are closely linked to the conditions of sea ice, water temperature, and prey availability, providing valuable insights into the state of the environment.
  • Trophic dynamics: Walruses play a crucial role in trophic dynamics by influencing the population of their prey, which mainly includes benthic invertebrates such as clams and mussels. Their foraging activities help maintain a balanced and sustainable Arctic marine food web, preventing overpopulation of certain species and ensuring ecosystem stability.
  • Habitat sensitivity: Walruses are highly sensitive to changes in sea ice conditions and coastal habitats. Their reliance on ice for resting, molting, and giving birth makes them vulnerable to climate change impacts. Studying their habitat preferences and responses helps scientists understand the broader effects of environmental changes in the Arctic.
  • Migration patterns and nutrient cycling: The extensive migrations of walruses between feeding and breeding areas contribute to nutrient cycling in different regions of the Arctic. Their movements help disperse nutrients through waste, influencing the distribution and productivity of marine plants and invertebrates, thereby shaping the Arctic food chain.
  • Prey for apex predators: Walruses are prey for apex predators in the Arctic, including polar bears and killer whales. The interactions between walruses and these predators are crucial for maintaining biodiversity and a balanced predator-prey dynamic, contributing to the overall health and functioning of the marine ecosystem.
  • Cultural significance: Walruses hold cultural importance for indigenous communities in the Arctic. They provide sustenance and raw materials for traditional practices, contributing to the cultural identity of these communities. Preserving walrus populations is vital for maintaining these cultural connections.
  • Eco-tourism and awareness: Walruses contribute to eco-tourism, drawing attention to the importance of conserving the Arctic environment. Observing walruses in their natural habitat not only supports local economies but also raises awareness about the ecological significance of these marine mammals and the need for conservation efforts.
  • Carbon sink: Walruses contribute to carbon sequestration through their role in nutrient cycling. By redistributing nutrients through their movements and waste, they indirectly influence the carbon cycle in the Arctic, impacting the storage and release of carbon in marine ecosystems.
  • Biodiversity support: The presence of walruses contributes to the overall biodiversity of the Arctic marine environment. Their interactions with other species and their role in shaping the ecosystem through predation and foraging activities contribute to a rich and diverse Arctic ecosystem.
  • Research opportunities: Studying walruses provides scientists with valuable data on marine mammal behavior, physiology, and responses to environmental changes. This research not only enhances our understanding of walrus ecology but also contributes to broader scientific knowledge about the Arctic ecosystem as a whole.

How plastic pollution impacts walruses

  • Ingestion of plastic waste: Walruses can mistakenly consume plastic debris, often floating in the water, as they forage for food. This ingestion can lead to various health issues, including digestive problems, blockages, and malnutrition.
  • Entanglement in plastic debris: Large plastic items, such as fishing nets and other debris, pose a risk of entanglement for walruses. This can impede their movement, affect their ability to hunt for food, and result in injuries or even death.
  • Habitat contamination: Plastic pollution in the Arctic can contaminate walrus habitats, including ice floes and coastal areas. Accumulation of plastic waste in these environments may alter the natural substrate, making it less suitable for walrus activities such as resting, molting, and giving birth.
  • Chemical exposure: Plastics can release harmful chemicals into the water, and when ingested by walruses, these toxins may accumulate in their tissues over time. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals can have detrimental effects on the overall health and reproductive success of walrus populations.
  • Disruption of prey species: Plastic pollution can impact the abundance and distribution of prey species that walruses depend on. Changes in prey availability and distribution can affect walrus foraging success and nutritional well-being.
  • Transport of plastic to Arctic regions: Plastic waste transported by ocean currents can reach even remote Arctic regions where walruses live. This long-range transport contributes to the exposure of walruses to plastic pollution, despite their habitats being far from major sources of plastic waste.
  • Impact on reproduction: The presence of plastic pollutants in the environment can potentially impact the reproductive success of walruses. This may include disruptions to reproductive behaviors, egg development, and the overall health of walrus calves.

Other threats to walruses

  • Climate change: The primary threat to walruses is climate change, which is causing the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice. Walruses depend on sea ice as resting platforms and as a means to access their prey. The loss of sea ice forces them to travel longer distances to find suitable resting and feeding grounds.
  • Habitat loss: Melting sea ice and warming temperatures lead to a reduction in the availability of suitable habitats for walruses, impacting their ability to rest, give birth, and rear their young. The changing Arctic environment poses a significant challenge to the survival of walrus populations.
  • Increased haul-out distances: With the decline in sea ice, walruses are forced to haul out on land instead of ice floes. This results in longer swimming distances between foraging areas and haul-out sites, leading to increased energy expenditure and potential nutritional stress, particularly for mothers and calves.
  • Predation risk: As walruses haul out on land due to diminishing sea ice, they become more vulnerable to predation by polar bears. Longer swimming distances also increase the risk of predation by killer whales, exposing walruses to additional threats during their migrations.
  • Human disturbance: Human activities, including shipping, industrial development, and tourism, can disturb walrus habitats and haul-out sites. Disturbances can cause stress, disrupt feeding and resting patterns, and lead to increased energy expenditure for the walruses.
  • Oil and gas exploration: Oil and gas exploration in the Arctic poses a threat to walruses through the potential for oil spills, habitat disruption, and increased human presence. Oil spills, in particular, can have severe consequences for walrus populations, affecting their health, reproductive success, and overall well-being.
  • Overharvesting: Historically, walruses have faced threats from overharvesting for their blubber, ivory tusks, and meat. While regulations and conservation efforts have helped mitigate this threat, illegal hunting still poses a risk to some walrus populations.
  • Disease transmission: Increased human activities in the Arctic may lead to the transmission of diseases from humans or domestic animals to walruses. This can have devastating effects on walrus health, as they may lack immunity to these diseases.
  • Ocean acidification: The absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans leads to ocean acidification, which can impact the availability of prey species for walruses. Changes in the acidity of the ocean may affect the abundance and distribution of important food sources.
  • Competition for resources: As sea ice retreats, there may be increased competition among walruses for limited resources such as haul-out sites and prey. This competition can lead to social stress and impact the overall health and reproduction of walrus populations.

What you can do to help protect walruses and their habitats

  • Support marine conservation organizations: Donate time, money, or supplies to reputable organizations that focus on protecting walruses and/or their Arctic habitats.
  • Practice responsible ecotourism: If you go walrus watching, whether on your own or with a charter, be responsible and make choices that minimize disturbances to marine life and their environment.
  • Reduce your plastic footprint: Avoid single-use plastics and limit the amount of plastic you use. By acting as a conscious and concerned consumer, you’ll help create demand for reusable and sustainable alternatives to plastics, which will encourage big brands and businesses to operate and innovate more sustainably.
  • Properly dispose of waste: Following your local recycling and trash disposal guidelines helps prevent pollutants and garbage from entering the environment and harming your local ecosystem. This matters whether you live 10 minutes or 10,000 miles from the ocean.
  • Support sustainable seafood: Choose seafood options that are sustainably sourced. Consult sustainable seafood guides and certifications to make informed choices when purchasing seafood products.
  • Report illegal activities: If you witness illegal fishing practices, report the activity to local authorities or relevant conservation organizations. Your vigilance can help deter illegal practices and protect walruses from exploitation.
  • Participate in beach cleanups: Join or organize beach cleanup events to remove litter and debris from your local environment, which will prevent it from entering the ocean and endangering marine life.
  • Participate in citizen science projects: Some organizations and research institutions run citizen science initiatives that allow the public to contribute data and observations on marine species. By participating in these programs, you can assist researchers in gathering valuable information.
  • Advocate for marine protected areas: Reach out to your local representatives in support of the establishment and expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) that include walrus habitats. MPAs provide vital sanctuaries where marine life can recover and thrive without pressure from human activities.
  • Educate others: Share this article to help raise awareness about plastic pollution and its impact on marine life or snag our limited edition Walrus Bracelet and use it to start conversations that encourage others to get involved in the clean ocean movement.

Remember, every small action counts, and our collective effort can have a significant positive impact on the health and wellbeing of our oceans and all the animals who call it home. 

Bracelet of the Month

Pull 5 pounds of trash from the ocean with our limited edition Walrus Bracelet, only available January 2024!

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