Walruses are some strange looking animals. Those giant tusks and whiskered face are just so comical looking. Still, despite their weird looks, walruses are amazing animals. They manage to survive and thrive in one of the harshest environments in the world.
Walruses are pinnipeds, and are members of the order Carnivora. They are closely related to seals and sea lions, and are the only extant members of the family Odobenidae. There are three subspecies of walrus: the Pacific walrus, Atlantic walrus, and a group of walruses that live in the Laptev sea. Walruses live in arctic or subarctic areas, spending much of their time in water or on sea ice. They prefer to stay near shallow waters, so they have easy access to food.
Pacific walruses are the largest of all the subspecies, with some males exceeding 4,400 pounds. More commonly they weigh between 1,800 and 3,700 pounds with females having an average weight of 1,800 pounds. Walruses are the third largest pinnipeds, only being outweighed by the elephant seal. Of course, the most striking feature of the walrus is its large tusks. These can be massive, growing over three feet long and weighing up to twelve pounds. The tusks of walruses are actually modified canine teeth, and both male and female walruses have them. They aren’t just ornamental either – walrus tusks have a number of useful functions. They help walruses make breathing holes in the thick arctic ice, and sometimes walruses use them to crawl onto ice. Tusks are also great defence mechanisms against predators, which for the walrus means polar bears and killer whales.
Another notable feature of the walrus is its copious amount of stiff whiskers. These are very sensitive, and are used to rake the sea floor in the search for food. Walruses mostly eat bivalve molluscs, and have a special yearning for clams. The walrus dives to the sea floor and then moves its whiskers across the bottom to identify potential prey. They also stir up the seabed with jets of water and flipper waves. Anyone who’s eaten clams knows they’re not particularly easy to get out of their shell, but walruses have a solution for this. They attach their lips to the clam, and then pulls its tongue into its mouth, which creates a powerful vacuum that sucks the clam right out of its shell.
The lifespan of walruses is fairly long, being about 20-30 years in the wild. Males become sexually mature around seven years, but usually wait to mate until fifteen years of age. Females are sexually mature at four to six years old. Mating occurs from January to March, where males circle around groups of females, making loud calling displays. If she’s in the mood, the female will join the male in the water and copulation occurs. Gestation is fifteen months long, and calves are born in the spring. They nurse with their mother for over a year, and female walruses give birth to calves at most once every two years. Some calves have difficulty leaving their mothers, and can spend up to five years by mom’s side.
Walruses are pretty incredible, albeit odd looking animals. Unfortunately for walruses, they haven’t just attracted the attention of animal enthusiasts. In the 18th and 19th centuries, walruses were hunted extensively for their blubber and ivory, and walrus populations took quite a beating. Thankfully in recent years governments have protected walruses, and they have started to make a comeback. Let’s hope this trend continues and walruses stick around for a long time.
Cover image By Joel Garlich-Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Pacific Walrus Bull, Public Domain