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The walrus (scientifically named Odobenus rosmarus) is a large marine mammal with flippers, tusks, thick blubber, and whiskers. It is the only living member of the Odobenidae family of mammals, closely related to seals and sea lions. The scientific name, Odobenus, is Greek and means “tooth-walker,” referring to the walrus behaviour of pulling themselves onto and along the ice using their tusks.
Image: A walrus's skull.
Why this species is important
The walrus has always been an important animal in the cultures of indigenous Arctic peoples. Walrus have been used as a source of meat, blubber, hide and ivory. The walrus' ivory tusks were used in making tools such as shovels and knives and in art such as pendants and other types of jewellery. Today, Canadian Inuit communities still harvest walrus, using the animal in the traditional ways.
Climate change and sea ice
Walrus feed on clams and a wide variety of other invertebrates from the seafloor. They rest between feeding trips on sea ice or land. Sea ice provides walruses with a resting platform, access to offshore feeding areas, and seclusion from humans and predators. The constant motion of sea ice transports resting walruses over widely dispersed prey patches.
Sea ice, therefore, is critical to the survival of the walrus as a species. As the planet warms, sea ice is disappearing. Many scientists fear that this rapid loss of sea ice might imperil global walrus populations.
Illustrating the planet's polar ice cap, this image depicts how sea ice cover is expected to change over an 88 year period. Sliding the scale from left (2002) to right (2090), as the climate becomes warmer, sea ice cover will have decreased substantially by the year 2090.
2090 (*Projected sea ice cover)
2002 (Sea ice cover)
Climate change and breeding
Walrus are a marine mammal. However, depending on the season, they spend significant amounts of time on land or ice floes. This "hauling-out" behaviour happens at specific places during the summer, usually on small rocky islands. Females haul out on ice floes to give birth and raise their young.
During the winter, walrus seek places with open waters so that they are able to feed on the ocean bottom and to haul out on sea ice to rest. As the global climate changes, the amount of sea ice is reduced. Less sea ice would have an impact on walrus breeding success.
When walrus are hauled out on rocky shores during the summer, the males often fight one another for space to rest. They first use threatening displays before using their tusks as weapons to inflict damage and establish dominance.
Walrus whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are highly-sensitive organs containing nerves and blood used to detect food on the muddy ocean floor. Walrus feed by sucking clams into their mouth, crushing and ejecting the shells, and swallowing the body of the clam whole.
Hitching a ride on sea ice
Walrus use sea ice as secure resting places. In summer, as the sea ice gets pushed about by winds and ocean currents, groups of walrus may travel long distances without expending much energy.
See how they do it in this video.
Transcript: Hitching a ride on sea ice
A lonely walrus sits on an ice floe. A different view of the same walrus on the ice floe. Walruses on the ice floe seen from far away. A close up view of the same walruses on the ice floe. A sunny day in the shallows, the walruses are sitting, they are being gently rocked by waves. An underwater view of a walrus swimming, he bobs his head above the water to catch his breath, and goes under water again.