Peoples Of The North
The Global Issues
The "Making Of"
Up Close With The Walrus
Up Close With The Walrus
by Catherine Giroul, Co-ordinator Educational Component
If the Arctic were to vote for its weirdest-looking animal, the walrus would
be the winner… flippers down. These marine mammals, with their characteristic
large tusks, are found in the Arctic coastal regions. A big male can weigh
in at 1.9 tonnes and measure 3.5 m in length. Walruses belong to the order
Pinnepedia (“fin-footed”) along with seals and sea lions. There
is only one species of walrus, but scientists recognize three sub-species
scattered around the Arctic Circle. The scientific name for walrus is Odobenus
rosmarus, meaning one who walks with its teeth.
For a long time, scientists believed that walrus used their tusks to rake the seabed for clams, their favourite prey. The more extensive observations of recent years have dispelled this myth and shown the locomotive function of these tusks.
Walrus literally have to haul themselves onto pack ice or rocks to rest,
moult or breed, and they use these efficient tools like hooks to hoist their
impressive fatty bulk. In addition to this function, the tusks, grown by both
males and females, are weapons against predators or neighbours that encroach
a bit too much. But their most intriguing function is to enable males to prove
their strength and courage and impress females in bloody, but rarely fatal,
The walrus’s characteristic head shape may look odd but it is ideally adapted to its way of finding food. Though the walrus has very poor eyesight, it has a big muzzle with coarse bristles, called vibrissae, that are highly sensitive, like cat whiskers. In addition to being a loving means of recognition between mother and young (they identify one another by rubbing muzzles), these vibrissae are used to find food on the seabed. When a clam is located, the walrus uses its powerful lips to suck it from its shell.
Walrus live in big colonies and gather on the ice pack or rocks. Living in colonies enables them to quickly spot predators, such as polar bears. Unlike seals, for whom the suckling and pup-rearing period is very short, walrus are not weaned before age 2. The tender relationship between the mother and calf is as fascinating as the animal itself, expressed in such caresses and nuzzling that we are inevitably moved.
The crew was eagerly looking forward to this encounter with the walrus. This repulsive-looking beast reflects the paradox of the Arctic: in the harshest possible environment, we nevertheless find signs of surprisingly delicate life.
Photo Credit: Marc Gadoury