In Search of the Tooth Walker - in the Frigid Arctic, Researchers Attempt to Assemble the Puzzle That Is the Atlantic Walrus

Article excerpt

IT WAS SURPRISINGLY EASY to overlook Rob Stewart and Clement Lanthier as they crawled along the gravel beach of a lonely Arctic fjord in their dun-colored overalls. Then again, when one is keeping extraordinarily close company with several dozen Atlantic walruses, some of which can weigh as much as 3,500 pounds, anonymity is often a desirable characteristic.

With his target squarely in sight, Stewart whispered instructions to Lanthier via radio headset, slowly raising the rifle he'd been shouldering for the past several hours. A shot ripped through the air. Twenty yards away, a massive bull walrus jerked as a dart loaded with enough immobilizing drugs to knock out a family of gorillas penetrated his one-and-a-half-inch hide.

It was a successful day for Stewart, a research scientist with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Winnipeg, and Lanthier, a veterinarian specializing in wildlife. It was also the only victory they'd mus-ter during this particular two-week trip to the remote haunts of Ellesmere Island, as an unexpectedly high number of females and calves kept the researchers separated from the adult bulls they sought to study. Such is the nature of investigating the Atlantic walrus of the eastern Canadian Arctic, where decades of work by Stewart and his colleagues are only beginning to shed some light on the complex character of these enigmatic animals.

Throughout history, few creatures have so staunchly wrenched themselves into popular imagination as has the walrus. For millennia, Inuit peoples regarded them as alternatively possessing supernatural and human attributes. Nineteenth-century British sailors considered them "unearthly and demoniacal." Two centuries later, they are often erroneously deemed to be no more than bucktoothed, overweight bullies, a stereotype that neglects the true nature of a mammal marvelously adapted to one of the world's harshest environments.

Walruses are pinnipeds, a widely distributed group of marine mammals that also includes sea lions and seals. Scientists generally recognize two distinct subspecies: the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) and the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). (Some scientists consider the walrus of the Laptev Sea, off the coast of Siberia, to be a third subspecies.) The word Odobenus is derived from the Greek "tooth walker," born of the walruses' propensity for hauling themselves up onto the ice with their signature tusks, which can grow to be 3 feet long in adult males and weigh as much as 12 pounds each.

Pacific walruses are more migratory and more numerous than their Atlantic counterparts. They are most commonly found in the Bering and Chukchi seas of Alaska and Russia, and are thought to exceed 200,000 in number. Pacific walruses are also much better understood than the Atlantic variety, the result of much greater research funding by the American government. Stewart's efforts, however, are helping to close the knowledge gap between the species.

"Until a few years ago, work on Atlantic walrus had fallen way behind in terms of priorities," notes Becky Sjare, a marine mammal scientist with DFO in St. John's, Newfoundland. "And from the behavioral perspective, virtually nothing had been done. So Rob has made major contributions to the field in that regard."

No amount of research has helped the once-abundant Atlantic walrus to rebound from the human exploitation that ravaged its ranks over the past three to five centuries, however. As a result, the population has been reduced to a mere fraction of the several hundred thousand animals it once boasted. Increased human activity has been the primary culprit preventing the Atlantic walrus from repopulating much of its traditional range, although commercial hunting, poaching and aboriginal hunting have played a role as well.

Today, Atlantic walruses can be found along the coasts of Greenland and scattered throughout the remote islands north of Norway and off the northern coast of eastern Russia. …

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