Walrus
Odobenus rosmarus

 
 
 
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What Are They Like?

A member of the pinniped family that also includes sea lions and seals, the walrus is known for its giant tusks, whiskers and bulk. Both male (bull) and female (cow) walruses have tusks, which are really greatly enlarged canine teeth. The male’s tusks are much larger, however. Adult walrus measure 7.25-11.5 feet (2.2-3.5 meters) in length and can weigh up to 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms). Walruses are covered by a thick layer of fat and a tough leathery skin with a thin layer of hair that is light brown on adults and almost black on young walrus. The head is small in comparison with the body, and the upper lip is thick with a stiff moustache made up of bristles, which are important sensory organs. Walruses differ from some seals in that they can turn their hind limbs forward. This enables them to raise themselves up, giving them greater freedom of movement on land.

Where Do They Live?

Walruses spend most of their lives at sea, although they frequently come out of the water, or haul out, onto ice floes or land to rest. Keeping mainly to the moving ice packs, walrus migrate north in spring and south in winter. Two subspecies, the Atlantic and Pacific walrus, live in the arctic and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The Pacific walrus is the largest. Like so many arctic creatures, the walrus’ habitat is rapidly disappearing as global warming causes sea ice to melt.

 
Did You Know?
Walrus tusks can measure up to 3 feet (0.9 meter) in length.

How Are Babies Made?

Breeding occurs from January to March, peaking in the month of February. During breeding season, males gather in the water around ice-bound groups of females and engage in competitive vocal displays. The females join them, and they copulate in the water. Gestation lasts 15 to 16 months. Calves are born during the northward spring migration, which occurs from April to June. They weigh between 99 and 170 pounds (45-77.1 kilograms) at birth and are able to swim. The mothers nurse calves for more than a year before weaning, but the young can spend up to five years living with the mothers.

What Do They Eat?

Walruses primarily eat species that dwell on the sea bottom, such as mollusks, salt worms, crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans along with  octopuses. The walrus drags its tusks like sled runners along the sea bottom, rooting out buried prey with its snout and stiff facial bristles.

 

What Do They Do?

In the late summer and fall, walruses form massive groups of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches or outcrops. In late spring and summer, for example, several hundred thousand Pacific walruses migrate from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea through the relatively narrow Bering Strait. In the summer, bulls live together in bachelor groups, but during the midwinter mating season (January through March) walruses congregate in groups called “mobile leks” in regions of ice-free water. Bulls sometimes fight viciously over cows, and the victorious bull always keeps an eye out for other males who would steal his females if given the opportunity.

How Concerned Should We Be?

Threats such as oil and gas exploration and development, coupled with the threat posed to sea ice habitat by global warming, are pushing the Pacific walrus toward extinction. As sea ice continues to melt, and as prey becomes harder to find due to oil and gas development in their home waters, walruses are struggling to survive. Conservation groups continue to push for listing of the walrus under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). An ESA listing would force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate “critical habitat” in the Arctic Ocean for the walrus—a designation that could be used to curtail the oil and gas development and resulting greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, as well as limiting the commercial activities that disrupt feeding patterns.

What's Being Done?

The Atlantic walrus was nearly eliminated in the 18th and 19th centuries, when American and European sealers and whalers hunted them nearly to extinction. Commercial walrus hunting is now outlawed worldwide. In the United States, the walrus became a federally protected species with the passage of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which imposed a moratorium on the taking and importation of various marine mammals, their parts and products. Because of the imminent threats, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 asking that the walrus be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.


 

Walrus Swarm Beaches as Ice Melts

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