I Am the Walrus
More than its close relative the seal, the walrus (odobenus rosmanus, to give it the full Latin name) is a strange-looking creature but is absolutely fascinating to observe. In fact odobenidae means ‘those that walk with their teeth.’ The popular and pretty accurate image is of a very large, ungainly sea animal with bright, glaring eyes, a bulbous nose and an unkempt, straggly, huge swatch of whiskers. Those very human-looking bristles, splaying in all directions, have led many a novelist comparatively to describe a character as ‘wearing a large walrus-like moustache’. They can often bristle out to a length of over 10 cm. The heavily-built walrus is one of the contributing, special factors which has helped to exemplify what sets this extraordinary Arctic apart, a place of mystery and excitement. Possibly for a similar reason, Lewis Carroll included in his Alice Through the Looking Glass, the story of the walrus inviting some oysters for tea, only for them to discover they are the tea. ‘The time has come, the walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax Of cabbages and kings And why the sea is boiling hot And whether pigs have wings. But answer came there none And this was scarcely odd because they’d eaten every one.’ In fact walruses do eat shellfish, particularly clams and mussels. They prefer to dive for their food in shallows of about 55 metres but can often go down to 90 metres. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also intrigued by this unusually quaint creature and called one of their surreal, more strangely-worded songs ‘I Am the Walrus.’ Did they mean we are the walruses? Then who was the egg man? Probably Ringo at least was the one who egged them on. At one time in his acting career, having grown a long straggly moustache, he was certainly able to give more than a passable walrus imitation.
Gates Of The Arctic National Park Map Photo Gallery
Walruses are pinnipeds, like seals and sea lions. Pinni meaning wing or fin and pedis meaning foot. Walruses are the largest pinnipeds and live in shallow water near land or the ice floes. There are two types, Pacific and Atlantic. The bulls weigh more than the polar bears, up to one tonne or more, and can grow up to three and a half metres. You can tell their age by the number of rings in a cross-section of their teeth, although you shouldn’t try this whilst they are alive or at least not darted to put to sleep for research purposes. As a rule they don’t attack humans but in defence are extremely fierce. One blow from a powerful fin will make you see double the amount of stars in the Arctic sky. They have, on occasion, even tusked a boat that they thought was being used to hunt them. They can move so surprisingly fast on land that they can catch up with a man and can actually walk on all four fins in a more elegant way than the lumbering seal. These could be the main reasons why the walrus is also called the sea horse.
The tusks of walruses are in fact upper canine teeth. They are made of ivory harder than that of the elephant and can grow to one and a half metres in the bull and half that in the cow. The longer the tusk the more important ranking they have in their own group. The bulls use their tusks to fight each other, particularly during the mating season, in order to earn the right to mate with their chosen female cow. The courtship of the bull and cow walrus is an extraordinary long and elaborate process between two heavyweights of the Arctic. First the male seduces with growls, barks and whistles. Then the two tenderly rub their whiskers together before laboriously getting down to the serious business at hand. A lot of grunting goes on. It’s definitely what is known as a labour of love.
Matings usually take place from late April up to early June. Gestation takes over a year. Only one pup is born every alternate year and the birth takes place on an ice floe where the cow feels the safest. The cow is highly protective of her pup and will attack any one that tries to harm it. If the pup is actually killed then the cow is driven into a frenzy of revenge. The pup is born with short silver-grey hair and weighs around 50 kg. It is able to swim immediately but will closely follow its mother for the first few weeks. The cow and the pup stay together for up to two years before it is considered adult enough to go off on its own. Both bulls and cows will use their tusks as ice picks to haul themselves rather laboriously out of the sea to clamber on to the ice as well as using them to break the ice to create breathing holes. The tusks are also great for digging for clams which are mostly swallowed whole but sometimes are broken open. No shells have ever been found in the stomach so they must be able to crunch them into the tiniest of fragments. They also swallow pebbles and stones which are probably used to crush the shells and aid digestion.
Walruses are gregarious and sociable creatures and during the summer will usually lie around in packed, noisy groups, mostly males together, unless it’s time for mating. Possibly they realise that no creature is ordinarily inclined to seek out their company. Herding together is also a protection against the few predators they face, mostly polar bears and killer whales, apart from man that is. They love to sunbathe if they can and grunt to each other; the phrase ‘chewing the fat’ could have been invented for the walrus. Like many other polar creatures they have a thick layer of blubber under their skins so they don’t feel the cold from the wind or the water. Their skin is very wrinkly which also acts as armour in protecting the walrus from predators or when in combat with another walrus. They can sleep when floating, as they have inflatable air sacs in their throats that fill up to keep them buoyant, so they rather comically bob up and down with their heads just above the water. They change colour from pink/cinnamon-brown to a lighter colour when swimming in colder waters, because their blood vessels become smaller. They have a blood circulatory system, so when they get hot their blood is pumped to the blubber and skin enabling it to become cooled by the air or water, and when they are cold they reduce the blood flow to the skin and blubber to save on heat.
Walruses use their whiskers, which are highly sensitive, to feel around to find their food. Then they blow or snort to loosen the food or move it into position to eat. Their tusks can get in the way so they have to manoeuvre carefully. Mostly they eat invertebrates, living on the sea bottom; shrimps, crabs, snails, worms. They migrate in the spring and autumn, alerted by the advance or retreat of the ice floes, following their food opportunities. In some special cases bulls have been known to grow up to two tonnes. That’s a lot of bull.