Walrus, Anastasiya Bay, Russia

The Curious Walrus or Odobenus Rosmarus

Mark Brazil|October 20, 2007|Blog Post

The walrus is a visually peculiar creature. To see one up close is to understand why scientists called it Odobenus rosmarus, tooth-walker, and why, in Old Norse, they were known as hval-hross, whale-horses. Indubitably, the walrus is a curious beast.

At sea, they blow and spout like small cetaceans, though they bellow like buffalo. Their rubber-like faces reveal an extraordinarily small and muscular mouth with a bristly muzzle sporting several hundred long, stiff hairs. On shore, like sea lions, they can raise themselves up on their fore limbs, but unlike any other member of the Pinniped family, they sport tusks up to a meter long.

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.

In northeast Russia, walrus tusks are a prize, followed in second place by their extraordinary oosik—itself the subject of an entire art form of carving. In the words of an anonymous poet of Nome:

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!

During deep dives down to 180 feet in search of food, and lasting up to 30 minutes, they shunt blood away from their skin to their main internal organs, resulting in 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. And, being 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—up to 3,300 pounds—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 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 nearly 100 pounds of food daily—making it hardly surprising that they carry so much blubber.

Walrus in the Bering Sea region mate during the January – February breeding season in the pack ice and their young are born in the spring on the ice, with females bearing only one calf every two - three years. This extremely slow reproductive rate renders the curious—and most marvelous—walrus population very vulnerable to depletion.

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