Have you seen a walrus in the wild? These large, fun-lovable animals are easily identified by their long white tusks, mustaches, and floppy tails as they trudge along the land. They are found in shallow, coastal waters, most notably in the Arctic. Towards the end of autumn, walruses leave the Arctic shores to spend winter in the Bering Strait, making them vulnerable to commercial hunting, the changing climate, and industrial impacts during their journey. As sea ice melts, their migrations are growing longer, and in some cases, they’re closer to humans, which brings a host of dangers.
“The walrus is a large pinniped—fin-footed— with upper canine teeth that grow into long tusks. Their tusks help walruses live in the Arctic; they use them to haul themselves out of frigid waters, to break breathing holes in the ice from below, and to protect their territory and their harems of females, or cows.” – World Wildlife Fund
Walruses migrate with the moving ice but never venture far from the coast as their food sources are found in shallow waters. These marine mammals feast on mollusks (small animals like snails, clams, mussels, and squid) and other invertebrates.
There are two main subspecies of the walrus, the Atlantic and Pacific, which occupy different Arctic areas. The Atlantic walrus lives in the seasonally ice-covered northern waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. The Pacific walrus has a wide range between Russia and the US (Alaska), from the Bering to the Chukchi Seas, as well as the Laptev Sea. There are thought to be around 25,000 Atlantic and approximately 200,000 Pacific walruses in the wild.
The greatest threat currently to walruses is climate change. Melting sea ice means more Pacific walruses are resting on land, further from their feeding grounds. These ever-growing gatherings can be deadly, especially for young calves. And as the Arctic opens up to more shipping, tourism, industry, and noise, the Atlantic walruses are at greater threat of disturbance, and therefore stampedes. They are highly susceptible to disturbance and noise, causing them to get spooked easily and enter a stampede in an attempt to reach the water.
Celebrating World Walrus Day
World Walrus Day was coined in 2008 to be celebrated each year on November 24th. This special day created by World Wildlife Fund and the Marine Mammal Council aims to raise awareness of the diminishing populations of these marine mammals, which are listed on the IUCN Red List Status as vulnerable, indicating a high risk of extinction in the wild.
Walrus from Space Project
Launched in October 2021, the ‘Walrus from Space‘ project is exploring what might happen to Atlantic and Laptev walruses in the context of rapid climate change with the help of the public. It is jointly led by WWF-UK and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), but there will be many other groups involved from science partners, communities, and other WWF offices (US, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia).
Phase one of the project included having the public find walruses in satellite images taken from space and in phase two (launching on World Walrus Day 2022), the public can count how many there are.
What We Already Know
World Wildlife Fund-UK has shared the following observations on the relationship between walruses and the changing climate.
- The climate crisis is having a significant impact on the Arctic, with this polar region warming almost three times faster than the global average.
- Walruses rely on sea ice, but the warming world is melting the ice from beneath them.
- Resting on land (as opposed to sea ice) may force walruses to swim further and expend more energy to reach their food (which is also being impacted by the climate crisis) and reduces the region that they can search.
- The Arctic Ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide. This makes it difficult for animals like bivalve mollusks (clams), sea snails, and crabs – the main prey of walrus – to build their shells.
- Walrus can also be disturbed by shipping traffic and industrial development as the Arctic becomes more accessible to such activities when sea ice is lost.
- As the Arctic is a vast and changing place, we simply don’t know enough yet about how many walruses there are, the trends in their population, and how the climate crisis is affecting them.
How You Can Get Involved
WWF and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are asking the public to become ‘walrus detectives’ and help contribute to conservation science by spending as little as thirty minutes searching for walruses in thousands of satellite images taken from space. The project aims to carry out a census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus populations over five years, which will help scientists to spot changes over time and how walruses are being impacted by the climate crisis. Register to be a citizen scientist to search for walruses here.