A welcome return for Norwegian walruses | Science

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Strange as it may seem, the ancestors of walruses originally lived in the tropics. They followed food sources north and ended up in two main places: the North Pacific and the North Atlantic. A large group has taken up residence in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, where warm and cold ocean currents meet. Over the past few million years, walruses have adapted to their freezing environment, with long ivory tusks to protect them from polar bears and thick, bristly skin with up to six inches of insulating blubber underneath. They learned to support themselves by using their sensitive whiskers to hunt clams, breaking the shells with their fins and noses, and eating them by the thousands. Sometimes they hunted seals, marine mammals with which they had no close connection. Walruses are the last remaining species of a family called Odobenidae, a Greek name meaning “those who walk with their teeth”.

A colony of Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) resting on a beach on the west coast of Svalbard.

Florian Ledoux

“The walrus is like a mythical creature,” says Colleen Reichmuth, researcher at University of California, Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Science. “They are unlike any other animal on earth. Their closest living relatives are nearly 20 million years apart.

Atlantic walruses in the water just offshore

Atlantic walruses head to the island after the ice melts.

Florian Ledoux

By 1952, walruses on Svalbard had almost disappeared, due to over 300 years of ivory hunting. So the Norwegian government banned commercial hunting of these endangered creatures, and they started bouncing back. In 2006, there were 2,629 walruses on Svalbard. The latest study, in 2018, put that number at 5,503. It is now common to see clusters of these social animals basking at the water’s edge. They fill the air with their cacophony of vocalizations, like friends chatting and singing late into the night.

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