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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005
ODOBENUS ROSMARUS REVEALED
What a curious wonder the walrus is
By MARK BRAZIL
The walrus is a peculiar, even comical, creature -- and not only in Lewis Carroll's 1872 poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter."
"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."
To see one up close is to understand why in Old Norse they were known as hval-hross (literally, "whale-horses").
Indubitably, the walrus (known to scientists as Odobenus rosmarus -- literally, "tooth-walker") is a curious beast; it seems not entirely this, not entirely that.
At sea, they blow and spout like small cetaceans, their misty breath hanging in the air, though they bellow like buffalo. On shore, they resemble giant maggots, but like sea lions they can raise themselves up on their fore limbs in a manner quite unlike ordinary seals.
They conjure up strange images of blathering pensioners sipping drinks at the gentleman's club; their faces rubber-like and contortable to reveal an extraordinarily small and muscular mouth bedecked above with a bristly muzzle sporting several hundred long, stiff hairs.
As if that were not curious enough, unlike any other member of the Pinniped family (primarily also including eared seals), they sport tusks up to a meter long. These massive canines, or pointed teeth, would weigh sufficiently, it might be imagined, to unbalance them; yet hold a walrus skull in your hands and you soon realize that super-ossification provides all the balance they need. The super-dense bone of the skull is extraordinarily heavy, and seems neatly to counterbalance the tusks.
I have watched walruses float vertically at sea, seemingly relaxed, even perhaps asleep, with their tusks held horizontally in the air, not dangling at all, aided no doubt by yet another of their anatomical curiosities -- a pair of air sacs beneath the skin of the neck that provide sufficient buoyancy to allow them to float vertically while asleep.
"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice -- and she might well have been talking of the Walrus.
You may well wonder how it is that I can talk of hefting walrus skulls, and of hearing their blows in the same paragraph. I can put it all down to having traveled recently to one of the least accessible parts of the world, namely the northeasternmost portion of Asia. There, in coastal Chukotka, northeast Russia, the Walrus is an important creature.
During my visit to the extraordinary archaeological site of Yttygran, Siberia, I couldn't help but notice the much younger remains of walrus on the beach at the ancient Chukchi gathering site with its strange, lichen-coated whalebone alley -- specifically, their unmistakeable skulls. Each one had been hacked so as to remove the tusks.
In northeast Russia, walrus tusks are a prize, followed in second place by their extraordinary oosiks. Alice would be too abashed to comment on this strange device, as in the words of the anonymous poet of Nome, Alaska: "How can this be, this clandestine glee / That exudes from the walrus like music / He knows, there inside, beneath blubber and hide / Lies a splendid contrivance -- the oosik!
"Oosik you say -- and quite well you may -- I'll explain if you keep it between us; In the simplest truth, though rather uncouth / Oosik is, in fact, his penis!"
Actually, and more to the point, the oosik is the walrus baculum (or penis bone), which is itself the subject of an entire art form of carving. In a rather dire local economy, natural products have assumed a considerable significance that is certainly sufficient to encourage local people to hunt wolverine, wolf, whale and walrus for their skins, teeth, meat or bones, depending on the species.
I was offered parts of all of these species during my voyage along the coast, but it was the curious, ungainly, wild walrus that I hoped to see, not their mutilated parts.
Walrus are nervous creatures that readily flee from the scent of humans -- not surprisingly, having being regularly hunted. But give them time, and they are also driven by a desire to haul out and bask.
During their deep dives down to 90 meters in search of food, which may last for up to 30 minutes, they shunt blood away from their skin to their main internal organs, and as a result they assume a deathly pallor. Given the chance to relax their suspicions, however, they haul out on shore and soon flush the deepest of pinks as their blood flows back to their skin's surface.
These are curiously thigmotactic creatures, as fond of creature contact as of basking, and though they may compete for the best spots (and tusk size is important here), they do like to be crammed together in close physical contact or even piled up on top of one another.
Curiously, again, their enormous bulk, which can amount to 1,500 kg for a male, and 1,000 kg for a female, is sustained on relatively small invertebrates, mainly clams, which they locate while foraging along the sea bottom.
With their highly sensitive facial bristles alert to the slightest movement of mollusk or crustacean, and their tusks like sled runners, walruses seek out food by suction. Once found, the walrus brings its curiously powerful mouth into play. Its dome-shaped oral cavity, powerful lips and facial muscles allow it to suck up clams, suck out the meat and discard the shells. Adults eat a rich diet of up to 45 kg of food daily -- making it hardly surprising that they carry so much blubber.
I landed on a snow bank on Arakamchechen Island, Chukchi Peninsula, then hiked across the tundra before crawling to the cliff edge to look down on the secluded bay below. There, nigh on 100 walruses were patroling offshore, but soon they began hauling out and coming to land. Among them were individuals with worn down tusks, others had one missing, some had one or even both tusks broken -- perhaps lost on a rare occasion of tackling larger prey, such as seals, or while defending their territories in courtship battles.
The animals shown here are all males; females follow the retreating ice northward into the Chukchi Sea for summer, while most adult males remain further south.
Their paths cross as the females head south and the males north and they mate at some point during the January-February breeding season in the Bering Sea (the straits that separates Russia from Alaska) pack ice. Walrus young are born in the spring on the ice, with females bearing only one calf every 2 or 3 years. This extremely slow reproductive rate renders the walrus population very vulnerable to depletion.
Though relatively long-lived creatures that may survive 40 years, females do not become sexually mature until aged 8, while males are unlikely to be strong enough to compete successfully for mates until much before they are 15.
Although it was 10 years since international visitors had last been permitted to visit this haulout, the nervousness of the animals indicated that they are not infrequently visited by people with more lethal intentions.
Many settlements are near walrus migration routes or wintering areas, and meat is welcome in the diet. The ivory tusks and bone have long been fashioned into tools, today into art. The oil was rendered for lamps. The tough hides provided strong rope and house coverings, and they are still used to cover traditional boats, called umiaks.
Curious creatures indeed, well worthy of Alice.
Mark Brazil teaches biodiversity and conservation at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido. He welcomes readers' questions at firstname.lastname@example.org