Walruses suck!

They really do! Let me explain.

I’d only seen walruses (Odobenus rosmarus, ‘odobenus’ from the Greek meaning ‘tooth-walker’; they sometimes haul themselves out of the water using their tusks) in TV documentaries, a la David Attenborough. I think Taronga Zoo in Sydney has at least one, but seeing such animals in the wild is a very, very different experience and much to be preferred if you can.

Walruses, like the polar bear, seem adorable, but this is a slightly condescending attitude we may have only if we are temporary visitors, far removed from the realities of living with them, unlike the Inuit who have relied on the North American population for food, knives and other tools, and weapons, for generations. Like with the Inuit, respect is paramount, along with the recognition that these are wild, and so potentially dangerous, animals. There are no native peoples in Svalbard, but walruses’ tough skin and ivory were sought after by Europeans there until protection in 1952. Numbers are increasing, from pretty much nothing to about 2,000 now.

Walrus haul-out, Svalbard

We saw the steam coming off the walruses before we saw the colony.

 

In the zodiac we sneaked up very quietly, turning off the engine and paddling the past few dozens of metres so as not to disturb them, and kept more than the minimum 30 m away. The guide asked us to speak in whispers if at all. Of course, the enormous beasts saw us and a few swam out to investigate, coming right up to the zodiacs in some cases.

They are very social and like to touch each other (thigmotactic).

Photo by Bruce Moore
Photo by Bruce Moore


Photo by Bruce Moore

The red colouration is due to the expansion of capillaries on the skin, helping the walrus lose heat.

The tusks can grow up to 1 m, but can get broken off in male-male breeding battles. Females have tusks, too.

Long walrus tusks in the Oslo Natural History Museum

According to National Geographic:

Walruses use their iconic long tusks for a variety of reasons, each of which makes their lives in the Arctic a bit easier. They use them to haul their enormous bodies out of frigid waters, thus their “tooth-walking” label, and to break breathing holes into ice from below. Their tusks, which are found on both males and females, can extend to about three feet, and are, in fact, large canine teeth, which grow throughout their lives. Male walruses, or bulls, also employ their tusks aggressively to maintain territory and, during mating season, to protect their harems of females, or cows.

Walruses apparently don’t see terribly well (it wouldn’t make sense to rely on eyesight in any season except summer, and don’t need it when feeding), but can smell – to detect the approach of predators (like polar bears) and identify their young – and hear extremely well (noises up to a mile or 1.6 km away). The whiskers (vibrissae, which can grow up to a foot or 30 cm long but mostly break off in contact with the sea bottom) are very sensitive. Walruses mostly eat clams buried in mud, but also take worms, crabs and sea cucumbers on the sea floor, diving down to 10-50 metres, and have been seen to eat ducks and seals!

Now the sucky bit. They rummage around on the sea floor, using their flippers and squirting water out to clear the clams of mud. Then they literally suck the soft parts right out of their shells, leaving the empty shells behind. A 2003 paper, ‘Feeding behaviour of free-ranging walruses with notes on apparent dextrality of flipper use’, goes into quite a bit of detail, concluding, among other things, that walruses are mainly, err, right-flippered.

Walruses mouths create massive suction. Photo by Bruce Moore

The paper says:

Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) are highly specialised benthic feeders feeding almost exclusively on bivalves, making them an important component of the benthic ecosystem. It is mainly the soft parts of the bivalves that are found in walrus stomachs, with pieces of shells seen only rarely. Almost 6400 bivalve siphons have been reported in a single walrus stomach …

The walruses showed four different foraging behaviours; removing sediment by beating the right flipper, removing sediment by beating the left flipper, removing sediment by use of a water-jet from the mouth and rooting through sediment with the muzzle. There was a significant preference for using right flipper over left flipper during foraging.

I rather liked this 1962 nature journal detailing an expedition to one of the Svalbard fjords.

The whole skeleton gives you an idea of the size.



Walrus illustration, Longyearbyen Museum

It was yet another awesome encounter in Svalbard.

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Polar paws

There are two types of polar paws on Svalbard: those of the arctic fox and the polar bear.

I find bears interesting, possibly because we don’t have any in Australia (no, a koala is not a bear),  so I can’t get up close and personal with one to see it where it lives. Not that that’s advisable – years ago I was visiting the fabulous Yosemite National Park in the United States with an American friend, and naively expressed a wish to see a bear (along with other non-Australian animals, like deer, squirrels, beavers …).  She said, “No, you really don’t!” and proceeded to tell me why (the most compelling reason being that we didn’t want to be bear lunch and that was a distinct possibility if we saw one – or it saw us).

Eight species of bear are recognised: Asiatic bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), brown (aka grizzly) bear (Ursus arctos) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus). There’s also a grizzly/polar bear hybrid, but it’s not counted as a separate species.

I’d seen a few bears in zoos (sun, grizzly, polar), but it’s far better to see them in the wild (safely, for both bears and humans) as an animal cannot really be understood when it’s separated from its native landscape. When I at last saw a real, live polar bear in its homeland of the Arctic, this was forcefully impressed on me. Despite the harshness of its Arctic lifestyle, the polar bear looked so comfortable, so right in its place, limber and full of grace and power. This young female bear was doing what all bears do – wandering the sea ice in search of live seals, or, on land, washed-up whale coprses on the shore. (When our chance encounter with a polar bear happened, my camera decided to spit the dummy, but Bruce Moore has kindly allowed me to show his photos.)

Polar bears endlessly patrol the ice in search of food, even in the harsh conditions of very sub-zero temperatures, winter storms and 24-hour darkness.


Although they are excellent swimmers. they keep out of the water when they can, to avoid getting too cold.

Even in the harshest of winter storms, only the females with cubs will be comfy in a deep den – the others have to dig a spot to lie in and settle down to let storms rage over them, and they have to roam to find food whatever the weather. They need about one ringed seal a week to keep in condition. Mothers with cubs hibernate through winter and use their own body fat reserves so they don’t have to hunt through the four or five months of harshest part of the year. They are very hungry when they come out of the den.

Intelligent, aware and adapted to its environment …

Polar bears are actually classified as marine mammals, because they spend most of their lives in (they are very good swimmers) or on water (in its ice form).

After she missed catching the seal, she turned her attention to the big ship nearby.

Cold is not really a problem for them as they have a thick layer of blubber and black skin that absorbs the sun’s warmth. The fur, too, is specialised – it’s actually transparent so that sunlight can penetrate to the skin for warmth, and had two layers so that air is trapped for insulation. It looks white (actually a cream colour), the perfect camouflage, because of the way light is reflected off it.

Polar bears have an excellent sense of smell – they can detect prey up to a kilometre away. They can also detect a seal in the water beneath a metre of ice and compacted snow. They have a kind of home territory but don’t defend it as such – the timing and place of appearance of food is so variable that there’s no point. They mostly wander on their own but can be more sociable when there’s plenty of food about.

“Our” bear saw a seal in the distance resting on a floe, and sneaked her way via ice and water so very, very close. At the last minute she charged, but the seal was faster and dived into the water. Polar bears are good learners, so she would have stored that experience away for next time. After she got out of the water, she spent several minutes rolling on the ice to dry off her fur, so that she wouldn’t get too cold (air between the hairs is a much better insulator than water). Cuteness overload ensued!

After hanging around the ship for about half an hour, she finally decided she was on a hiding to nothing, so strolled off. It was such a privilege to have that encounter.

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Koala aloha

The local male koala has been creating quite a din over the last few nights, and we finally got a shot of him at twilight, high up a gum tree.

You can hear a recording of the call here. It’s quite disturbing if you don’t know what it is. He’s calling for a female and to tell other males this is his territory. I’ve heard reply calls in the distance.

He looks cute and cuddly until you notice the claws. They need to be sharp for shimmying up trees. Friends who are koala rescuers have particular techniques for picking a koala up and avoiding the claws and teeth – from behind in such a way that the claws and teeth can’t reach you.

Neighbours have been hearing other males about the place, and it’s good to know there’s a healthy population at least where we live. Other places are not so lucky.

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More Arctic avians

I met fellow-Aussies Bruce and Linda on the Arctic trip, and Bruce has kindly allowed me to post some of his great shots. He has a camera with a big lens (allowing for nice close-ups) and the knowledge to use it, unlike me and my little point-and-shoot (yes, I know, RTFM). (All photos copyright by Bruce Moore – thanks, Bruce!)

Atlantic puffins

Puffins resting on steep rock ledges

One of three puffin species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has been estimated to have 10,000 breeding pairs in the islands of Svalbard. I first saw this bird on the way to the Orkneys, north of Scotland. They nest sociably in crevices or in the spaces under convenient boulders in the Arctic where there is little soil depth (otherwise they would burrow into the ground). The chicks stay hidden and are fed fish, crustaceans and worms accumulated by the diving adults.

Glaucus gulls

Glaucus gull and chicks

Glaucus gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are omnivorous, eating molluscs, the eggs and chicks of other seabirds. They are the second-largest gulls in the world.

Black-legged kittiwakes

Kittiwakes like to hang out on icebergs

Rissa tridactyla is a colonial nester, even on glacier edges or snowbanks if there are no ice-free ledges. They build nests on very steep slopes as protection from Arctic foxes, which steal their eggs and chicks. They generally forage far out to sea, following trawlers, collecting shrimps, marine snails and terrestrial invertebrates and plants, seeds and grasses.

 

Common eiders

Male eider flying over a glaucus gull

Common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are divers – the males black-and white and the females brown. They nest on ice-free islands, pulling down from their own breasts to line the nest. They eat crustaceans and molluscs.

 

Brünnich’s guillemots

Brunnich’s guillemots crowd together on rocky cliffs

There are a few large breeding colonies of Uria lomvia on exposed cliffs, each containing perhaps over a million birds. These are the birds you might have seen on a David Attenborough program – the chicks launch themselves (with their father) from the high cliffs even though they are unable to fly. If the chick hits the ground, it struggles through the scree towards the sea, but may be taken by Arctic foxes or great skuas. If it hits or makes it to the water, it and its father will swim south to warmer climes. The father is also flightless at this time as he is moulting.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle goose

Branta leucopsis breeds exclusively in the Arctic on low-lying islands and sea-cliff edges. They graze on vegetation. This is the bird that was thought, in medieval times, to come from a barnacle. It was thus classified as a sea animal, so that it could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays (when meat was not allowed).

Northern fulmars

Northern fulmar

Svalbard has the ‘blue’ form of Fulmarus glacialis – the other form has more white. They happily follow ships in case any offerings get thrown over the side. They are not great on land but are strong fliers –  wingspan is over a metre – and they have been known to live around 30 years.

 

Arctic terns

Arctic tern

Sterna paradisaea migrates between the north and south pole areas, spending the summer months at each pole in turn. They travel 90,000 km every year for about 30 years – the biggest bird migration known. They vigorously defend their nests so expect to be dive-bombed if you go near one – but you wouldn’t, would you?

 

Great skuas

Great skua

Great skuas (Stercorarius skua) aggressively attack other birds on the wing, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which the skuas snatch for themselves. Like terns, they will aggressively defend their nest from intruders, whether human or fox or polar bear.

Little auks

Little auk

These little cuties (Alle alle) are estimated to have over 10 million breeding pairs in Svalbard. The noise and great swirling flight they create in their massive breeding colonies when an Arctic fox is about has to be seen to be believed. They are thought to be the world’s most numerous seabird. The breeding season coincides with the seasonal peak of plankton and small fish, taken at night, mostly fairly close to the colony.

 

 

Purple sandpipers

Pruple sandpipers gleaning for food

I’m not sure why Calidris maritima are ‘purple’, but they acted as any wader does, rummaging for invertebrates, insects, buds and seeds along the shoreline.

Black guillemots

Black guillemot, with the distinctive red legs

Cepphus grylle is a diver, going down about nine metres to get fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The breeding colonies are minute compared to some other birds – a few birds, or a few dozen, in scree or on flat ground.

 

 

Snow buntings

The charming snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis is the only breeding songbird in Svalbard. It’s about the size of a sparrow and hunts for seeds and insects. 

 

 

 

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Arctic sea angels

One thing I didn’t expect to see in the Arctic was marine invertebrates, but of course in the Arctic summer there is a huge upwelling of plankton via the deep ocean currents, providing literally tonnes of food for fish and baleen whales. The graphic below gives you an idea of who eats who, except it has left out Arctic foxes, which prey on birds and their eggs and scavenge what’s left of seal carcasses taken by polar bears.

Arctic food web, by Cmglee, Wikimedia Commons

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on a zodiac with the ship’s doctor, Nanamma, who turned out to be as keen on jellyfish and similar critters as I was. She spent some time dipping ziplock plastic bags over the side and showing us what came up. I was thrilled to see organisms I had only read about – pteropods (sea angels and sea butterflies) – and comb jellies.

Comb jelly (red, left) and sea butterfly (brown, right)

Below is a better shot of a sea butterfly, taken by NOAA.

Sea butterfly; NOAA Photo Library

Sea angels are particularly beautiful. They were bigger than I expected – about the length of my thumb.

Two sea angels (right) and a sea butterfly (bottom left)

Below is a clearer shot by NOAA.

Clione limacina; photo by NOAA

Once I got my eye in, I could easily see them in the water – all over the place! Just another fabulous day in the Arctic.

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Arctic avians

I used to be more of an avian adventurer, but I don’t generally do the birding thing much anymore. Despite this, the Arctic trip added a dozen or so birds to my life list (if I were to have such a thing – but of course I do!).

The final bird list on the trip was as follows (the column headings, which can’t be seen, are dates). I didn’t see all of them,  but I’m posting pictures of those I did (all photos are my own unless mentioned in the captions). I’m not concentrating on the birds as such – after all, you can easily find much better shots than mine on the interwebs – but rather on the combination of the birds and the environment they scratch a living out of.

End-of-trip bird list

 

Birds can’t survive the Arctic winter, so migrate back and forth. The Arctic summer brings massive amounts of plankton and other underwater animals and plants, due to upwelling from ocean currents. The whole biological system relies on the summer largesse of the bottom rung of the food web.

The poster on the ship’s wall helped with ID, as did the excellent library.

Svalbard birds poster

  • The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), possibly the world’s greatest migrator, flying every year between the Arctic and Antarctica over a lifetime of 15-30 years

Arctic tern; not my photo, not sure who photographed it

  • Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Pair of pink-footed geese in Longyearbyen

 

  • Common eider (Somateria mollissima; in the second photo, male on the far right) – yes, the ones whose bum feathers make those cosy ‘eiderdowns’ for your bed.

Eider female sitting on eggs in Longyearbyen

Flock of common eiders on a shingle beach in Svalbard; male far right

Steep slopes give eiders a certain amount of protection from predators – at least they can see a long way

  • Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) – note the surroundings in which they are feeding. This is typical of Longyearbyen and most of the Svalbard peninsula, except that Longyearbyen has lots of mine tailings and industrial structures from the old mining days. The permafrost is just below the surface and the ground unfreezes in summer to only a metre or so, supplying just enough meltwater for tiny plants to unfreeze and commence their summer lives. These are the geese that medieval folks thought came from barnacles.

Barnacle geese in Longyearbyen

  • Glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus), a large gull that scavenges pretty much anything

    Glaucus gull

Glaucus gulls resting on floating ice

  • Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), breeds in colonies on cliff ledges; 130,000 breeding pairs have been estimated

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown but is one of our party

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown

 

  • Brünnich’s guillemot – these birds nest in their hundreds of thousand on sheer cliffs to avoid predation by Arctic foxes and polar bears, which will eat the birds’ eggs and young if they can get at them.

    Brunnich’s guillemot on cliff ledge

  • Long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) – these birds attack other birds that have caught their own meals, causing them to drop the food so that the skuas can make off with it.

    Long-tailed skua

 

 

 

 

Northern fulmar; photographer was one of our party

Purple sandpiper

  • Little auk (Alle alle), another bird that nests in thousands on cliffs

    Little auks; photo by Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Back on the Norwegian mainland, I saw:

  • Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) at Balestrand, the same species we get in Australia
  • Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – an urban dweller, this one in Tromso

    Hooded crow

    All in all, a satisfying set of additions to the personal bird list.

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Walruses, seals and a polar bear, oh my!

Walruses rule!

At lunchtime in the Arctic one day (oh, how I like that phrase!), I decided the trip couldn’t get any better – I’d just seen a colony of walruses and was musing on their amazingness. Little did I know what awaited in the afternoon …

Did you know that walrus colonies steam? I didn’t. From afar, as we silently approached in the zodiacs at very low speed so as not to alarm them, we could see clouds rising from the shore above the animals. It was hard to tell how many were in the herd as we could only see them on the near edge, but it might have been hundreds – and they are huge, up to 3.2 metres and 1200-1500 kg! They are thigmotactic, meaning they like to huddle together and touch each other. These were certainly very, err, thiggy – and very curious about us.

Several walruses came up very close to us. One even poked a zodiac with its tusks.

Several slid into the water, coming to investigate each boat. We stopped at the prescribed distance, but the walruses hadn’t read the guidebook so just kept coming. The big males here are red on the neck – the blood capillaries are close to the skin’s surface to lose heat. It was about 2 degrees C (in the air, and the same in the water), but they have so much blubber (as insulation from the cold) that when they haul out on land to warm up, they sometimes need to lose built-up heat. The warty lumps on the male necks are called ‘bosses’ or ‘tubercles’, and are thought to be a sign of maleness or old scars from fighting.

You can see the steam coming off their bodies

Calves are born without tusks, which become visible around the age of two. Some of these had very long tusks, which males use for fighting each other, or fighting off polar bears and orcas (whose menu they are on). They can live up to 40 years.

Walruses dive to the sea floor, using the sensitive whiskers (technically called ‘vibrissae’) to detect mussels. They jet water from their mouths and wave their flippers to uncover the bivalves on the seafloor. The special shape of the mouth allows them to create enough pressure to literally suck the molluscs out of their shells, and if you’ve ever tried to open a live bivalve you’ll know how hard that is.

Arctic terns hovered, possibly looking for fish disturbed by swimming walruses.

There’s a bear out there!

While we were having lunch, the ship continued to follow the pack ice to see what we could see. A naturalist was stationed on the bridge at all hours in case of anything interesting popping up. Sure enough, when he called over the intercom, ‘Polar bear to port!’ we all raced up to the top deck.

It was hard at first to get my eye in – a bit like trying to see a bird in a canopy through binoculars. The sheer whiteness and brightness were almost overwhelming, but I finally saw her. I’d been looking for something white, but she was cream. The hairs are actually transparent but the light reflects to get the cream or white effect. The skin is black to help absorb warmth from light.

Can you see the bear in this shot? Then imagine it about twice as far away, because I zoomed in a bit.

She was meandering in a casual fashion, as isbjörnarna (plural of isbjörn, Norwegian for ‘ice bear’) are wont to do, looking totally at home and relaxed. Someone noticed a bearded seal to the right – and it was obvious the bear did, too. We watched in fascination as over the next 15 minutes or so she snuck up on the seal – lunged at the last minute – and missed! Aaargh! At this point my camera decided to malfunction, so I have to rely on my roommate’s photos. (It recovered by the next day.)

After the seal dived into the water, the bear rolled around a bit on the ice to squeeze the water out of her fur. The naturalists estimated she was healthy and 3 or 4 years old, since cubs stay with their mother for 2 years, then go out on their own, and females are thought to start breeding at about 5. They are smart and have flexible behaviour, learning all the while. The most dangerous time for them is when they leave their mother, as they have to learn ‘on the job’, so to speak.

Rolling to get rid of cold water in the fur; photo by Janet Spillman

She then noticed us and started over. She stayed for quite a while looking up at us (wistfully? hungrily?), then dived back into the water and swam off. A couple of the naturalists said they hadn’t seen that sort of behaviour before – and she would probably have walked happily up the gangplank if it’d been lowered!

Hmm, there’s a big white ship smelling of humans over there; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m just like those cute fluffy toys – won’t you come play with me?; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m mostly harmless, really I am; photo by Janet Spillman

Ah, what the heck – I give up!; photo by Janet Spillman

 

Bears chase down and feed on seals on the ice and, tragically, with the ice diminishing year by year (Svalbard is the fastest warming place on the planet), they are finding it harder and harder to find enough food. Scientists estimate that the Svalbard population will be gone in a couple of decades. It’s sad to think of the possible fate of this lovely isbjörn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longyearbyen graffiti – the most northerly graffiti in the world?

One of the Canadian naturalist crew had a stunning necklace carved from polar bear claw and walrus bone, by Inuit craftsman Greg Morgan. Even if you can afford his carvings, you wouldn’t be allowed to import them into Australia, or even out of Canada.

Bearded seals

Another day we saw several of the polar bears’ favourite food – bearded seals. They seemed cool (literally) about us creeping past quietly while they half-dozed in the sun.

Penguins

Just kidding – we saw only one. They are Antarctic birds.

Next post will be on Arctic birds.

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