Walrus

The walrus is easily recognised by its sheer size and magnificent tusks. It is a keystone species in Arctic marine ecosystems. The walrus was once threatened by commercial hunting but today the biggest danger it faces is climate change.

Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) group sunning themselves. Walrus Island, Pribilof, ... rel=
Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) group sunning themselves. Walrus Island, Pribilof, Alaska, USA.
© Y.-J. Rey-Millet / WWF-Canon

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Key Facts

  • Common Name

    Walrus

  • Scientific name

    Genus: Odobenus

  • Population size

    Atlantic ~18,000, Pacific ~200,000 & Laptev ~5,000

  • Status

    Data deficient; CITES appendix I

    IUCN

There are 3 sub-species of walrus: the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) and the Laptev walrus (Odobensus rosmarus laptevi), although the taxonomic status of the latter is uncertain.

Physical Description
The walrus is a pinniped, or fin-footed mammal, and is related to seals and sea lions. Their skin is a dark brown and is covered by a thin layer of small coarse hairs.

Their most remarkable features are the long tusks which are surrounded by a mat of stiff bristles. The tusks are used for keeping breathing holes in the ice open, for fighting and for helping the walruses haul themselves out of the water on to an ice floe.

Size
The largest sub-species is the Pacific walrus, which can weigh up to 2,000kg.

Habitat and Ecology
Walrus migrate with the moving ice floes, but never venture far from the coast as they feed in shallow waters. They can swim to a depth of around 100m to feed on molluscs and other invertebrates, but on average do not go much deeper than 20-30m.

Geographic Location
The Pacific walrus is found around Alaska and north-east Russia. The Atlantic walrus is found in the Canadian Arctic, in the waters of Greenland, Svalbard and the western portion of the Russian Arctic. The Laptev walrus is restricted to the Laptev sea.

Range states
Canada; Greenland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; United States

Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). / ©: WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer
Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens).
© WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer

What are the main threats?

The walrus was traditionally hunted for its meat, fat, skin, tusks and bone. During the 19th century it was subject to heavy commercial exploitation and numbers declined rapidly. In modern times, however, it is struggling to adapt to climate change.

The retreat of sea ice caused by climate change forces walruses ashore, with deadly consequences As arctic sea ice recedes far from the Russian and Alaskan coasts due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change, walruses – including females and their babies – are forced to take refuge on land.

The animals congregate in large groups, known as "haul outs". These mass congregations are dangerous and can lead to violent stampedes that are often deadly, especially to young walruses.


The video shows some of the 131 carcasses, mostly calves and yearlings, found dead in the end of September 2009.

What is WWF doing?

  • WWF works with partners around the circumpolar north to preserve the Arctic's rich biodiversity and combat threats from climate change, toxics and illegal fishing.
  • WWF's work on climate change aims to cut global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change, and aims to help species such as the walrus adapt to changes which are already occurring.
  • Specific projects include:
    Arctic - Toxics
    A New Approach to Protecting Arctic Ecological Values.

How you can help

  • Reduce your impact on the Earth! Find out how you can help reduce the effects of climate change!
  • Adopt a walrus! Help protect this amazing species through WWF US
  • Spread the word! Click on the button to share this information with others via email or your favourite social networking service.
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Did you know?

    • All male walruses, and some female walruses, have a large air sac in their throat which helps keep their head above water and also makes a bell-like sound during mating.
    • The tusks of a walrus can reach 1m in length.
    • The word walrus is thought to be derived from an Old Norse word meaning "horse-whale".

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