The under appreciated animals podcast is a wildlife podcast all about shining a spotlight on the animals that don’t get talked about as often as they should be.
• why they have blubber
• a scientific controversy concerning the subspecies
• and how you, yes you! Can help walruses from the comfort of your own home.
To join the Walrus From Space citizen scientists programme click here: https://geohive.maxar.com/walrus/login
Music: Outdoors In Summer by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com
[intro music]Hello and welcome to the under appreciated animals podcast with Hatchling Makes. An animal themed podcast filled with fun facts about species that aren’t always the main feature in nature documentaries but are getting a chance in the spotlight because they are amazing and they deserve some attention too.
My name is Tash Hatcher and I am a wildlife artist and life long animal lover. I run a small business called Hatchling Makes where I sell wildlife inspired enamel pins and stickers and every sale helps to raise money for wildlife conservation!
In each episode of this show I’ll be chatting about a different under appreciated animal. From horseshoe crabs to cassowaries to rock hyraxes and everything in between. I’ll be sharing fun facts and telling you all about these incredible species from where they’re found to what they eat to just what makes them so special. And hopefully by the end of the episode you’ll love them just as much as I do.
Before we go any further I do want to add in a tiny disclaimer! I am not a wildlife professional in any way shape or form. I am just an extreme animal lover, but I will do my very best to research these creatures to the best of my abilities so I can bring you their stories as accurately as possible.
So without further ado, let’s dive on in to todays episode!
Hello friends! Welcome back to the under appreciated animals podcast. As you heard in the intro, I’m Tash and as you’ve probably guessed, I am your podcast host for this show! This is episode 3 of this podcast, but if you’ve been around to listen to the last two episodes, you’ll know that this isn’t a story based podcast, you can skip around to listen to these episodes in any order you like. But do check out the other episodes if you love animals - which I hope, seeing as you’re listening to this, that you do!
Today’s episode is sort of a tribute episode as we will be talking all about the amazing walrus. If you’re in the wildlife or conservation communities online then you’ll know about the very tragic story of Freya, the walrus in Norway. We’ll chat more about her specific situation later on, but this episode is very much sort of my ode to Freya, and to walruses in general cause I’ve loved them for years.
As always I’ll be chatting about everything to do with walruses - from their different species to what they eat to exactly why they’re often seen climbing on boats. So let’s dive into what makes walruses so great!
Now walruses are a pinniped which is the scientific order which includes seals and sea lions. But they’re the only member of their genetic family. There are two subspecies of walrus - the Pacific walrus and the Atlantic walrus. And really the only difference is geographic. They look basically the same. There is also a sort of controversy in the scientific world about the existence of a third subspecies called the Laptev walrus. They were recognised as a subspecies of walrus in 1940 but with very little data to go on and the Laptev walrus and Pacific walrus seem to inhabit the same sort of general area. Hence the controversy! Some scientists believe they’re just localised Pacific walruses and some believe they’re a totally different subspecies.
So for the purposes of this episode we’re going to go with the two generally recognised subspecies of walrus and sort of include the Laptev walrus in with the Pacific walrus but who knows, maybe in a few years, or even in a few months, research will determine that Laptev walruses are their own subspecies. And that’s what’s amazing about animals, we’re constantly learning about them all the time and making discoveries. And in that way, science really is incredible.
So let’s talk specifics! Starting with the Pacific walrus, so they’re found in the northern Pacific ocean in the Bering Sea which is up between Alaska and Russia. But they migrate even further north into the Beaufort Sea which is above Alaska and also the Eastern Siberian Sea and Laptev Sea which is above Russia on the map.
Atlantic walruses on the other hand are found in the Atlantic ocean - this is another case of really inventive name calling when it came to coming up with the names for the different species! If you’re looking for an Atlantic walrus you want to head to coastal areas between Canada and Greenland and they can be found up around the island of Svalbard, as well as in the Kara sea which is above Russia. If you’re a UK or a European listener, Atlantic walruses are the ones that we very occasionally see around the UK and northern Europe!
Now it’s really hard to explain how these two populations are separated, but there’s no overlap at all in their territories. So if you imagine that you’re looking down from above at a globe and Canada on your left and Russia on your right with the Arctic sea in the middle. Imagine a circle which is the Arctic sea, with those two countries either side, again Canada on the left, Russia on the right, Pacific walruses are basically found at the top third of that circle and Atlantic walruses are found in the bottom third. So the Arctic sea actually separates them. Which means that their populations do not mingle at all.
Now in terms of how they look, like I said right at the start, both subspecies of walrus are basically the same. The Pacific walrus is a little bigger than their Atlantic cousins. Males can be almost 4 metres long, which is REALLY big - that’s about 13ft. And they can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes which is about the weight of a 1979 Volkswagen beetle! For comparison an average adult male human is generally around 200lbs or about 90kg.
I feel like a lot of this podcast is me talking about how much bigger these animals are in real life compared to how we all perceive them on nature documentaries! It’s just so hard to get the scale of these animals without actually seeing them in real life. Basically a walrus is huge.
Now baby walruses are adorable, I saw a post on social media recently that said that baby walruses are basically giant toddlers in velour tracksuits [laugh] and I feel like I can’t top that as an explanation for how they look, that’s better than any analogy I could ever have come up with!
Now obviously the first thing that everyone thinks about when they think of walruses is their tusks! Walrus tusks are actually long canines that continue to grow throughout their life and both males and females have tusks and they use them for loads of different things.
One of my favourite walrus facts is that they use their tusks to haul themselves up onto the ice - obviously they’re big animals and flippers are only so useful so they can whack their tusks in the ice - probably not whack but you know what I mean! And that gives them some leverage to haul themselves out of the water. And it’s thought - and I think this is really cute - but it’s thought that this particular habit is why walruses are also known as “tooth walkers” cause they use their tusks to haul themselves up and I guess it looks a bit like they’re using them to walk.
They also use their tusks to make breathing holes, so if they’re swimming under the ice and they need a breather they can use their tusks to break the ice apart and give them a breathing hole. Which begs the question of how exactly do they do that?! And I spent ages trying to search for photos or videos of them doing this and I couldn’t find any. So the only way I can think of is that they swim on their backs underwater and then jam their face upwards towards the ice cause their tusks bend inwards towards their body - So this is not the easiest thing for a walrus to do!
I do want to quickly touch on hunting here, cause a bit like elephants, those tusks do mean they’ve been sadly hunted by humans. So walruses are a protected species there’s about 200,000 Pacific walruses left in the world and 25,000 Atlantic, and historically they’ve been hunted for everything from their tusks to their blubber to their coats. Certain indigenous groups can still hunt walruses but I’m not going to go into this much because honestly I couldn’t find a lot of credible sources, most places do say that there’s a bunch of regulations in place for indigenous groups to not wipe out the walrus, and they do only get permission to hunt them because it’s integral to their way of life. But I did want to touch on hunting now cause walruses have been hunted for their tusks which is a bit sad.
Walruses also have loads of short bristles on their muzzles called vibrissae (vi-briss-eye), I really hope I’ve said that right, which they use to help them to find food. So they’ll snack on mussels and crabs and clams and when they find them, using these bristles, they will sort of hoover them up out of the sand. And then once they’ve had a good meal they will haul themselves out of the water and rest so that meal can turn into blubber which sustains them. That’s also why walruses are often found more around the coastal areas rather than out in deeper water and it doubles up because they then can rest on the beaches or nearby ice flows when they’re not in the water.
I just want to add here as well that blubber doesn’t just keep a walrus warm but also keeps them buoyant! In my head I’m just imagining a really buoyant walrus unable to dive down to get a meal - I know it absolutely doesn’t work like that but it really makes me chuckle at the mental picture.
And speaking of ice flows and walruses taking a rest I think that very nicely brings us onto Wally and Freya, the walruses that were spotted around Europe in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Both of them made headlines cause they were spotted chilling on boats. They did also sink some boats accidentally, I think mostly that was like rubber dingys that, when they used their tusks to try and haul themselves out the water, they sort of punctured the dingy and sank it. It’s not funny but it also kind of is.
It’s hard to find out exactly why they decided to get onto boats in the first place, but because walruses generally relax on ice flows, it could just be that they’re just mistaking the white boats for ice flows. Or that they’re just tired and it’s the nearest floating thing they can get on and they needed to have a rest. I mean they swam REALLY far south so they were probably a little bit exhausted.
So in the case of Wally the walrus, he was, I believe, the first walrus ever to be sighted in Cornwall! It’s really rare that walruses come so far south which is why Wally and also Freya were such huge attractions because, when else do you get a chance to see a walrus in the wild? Wally sank a few boats in a couple days and so the, I think it was the Irish authorities, actually built him his own floating pontoon! So he could have his own private place to rest and to try to keep people away from him.
This is the double edged sword I think of seeing an amazing animal like this in the wild when we don’t get to see them very often. A lot of folks wanted to see Wally and they tried to lure him to them and they drove their boats really close to him which was visibly stressing him out which was really sad. In the end Wally moved on from the UK, of his own accord, and he was later spotted in France and Sicily and then he turned around and made his way back up to Iceland and seemed to be heading back to further north which is great news.
As I was researching Wally it really reminded me of travelling around Europe when you finish school. I love this idea that Wally was out exploring the world and then when he saw everything he wanted to see he was just like, “Great, been there, done that, gotta get back home now”. I feel like that’s a children’s book waiting to be written where he then tells his kids about his adventures through Europe. [laugh]
Anyways I’m digressing, so let’s move on and talk about Freya. Now Freya was famously doing the same thing as Wally, but she chose instead to head to Norway rather than to France. Now I think it’s really important to say that in both Freya’s and Wally’s cases, that the walruses were feeding in the local area, so they had a natural food source and they were just doing what walruses do. And as I said earlier, they were both getting visibly stressed out because tourists were coming way too close and not respecting the wildlife.
Now if you don’t already know, Freya was sadly euthanised by the Norwegian government in 2022, because despite repeated warnings, the public weren’t leaving her alone and were actually trying to entice her closer so that they could take photos. And no matter how you look at it it’s really sad that we as humans were so self involved that we couldn’t appreciate these animals from a distance.
Walrus attacks on humans are rare but they can happen and you definitely don’t want to stress any animal out to the point where it attacks you. In the case of Freya in particular she actually chased a woman into the sea who had gotten too close to her. And that’s not a nice thing for either party in that situation I think it must have been really stressful for Freya to feel like she had no other choice but to physically chase a woman away. And I think we can all relate to wanting a little bit of private space to ourselves. People were even swimming with Freya which was also taking a massive and really unnecessary risk because at the end of the day she was a 600kg animal. I mean imagine if she had slapped you in the head with a flipper cause you decided to swim next to her, that would give you much more than just a headache.
I think if there’s one thing that I hope everyone takes away from this episode it’s that we as humans need to be better behaved around animals and nature. And if the scientists and conservation organisations are saying to leave an animal alone and observe from a distance then we need to do that.
Of course it’s amazing to see wild animals, there’s a whole industry around having these amazing experiences where you can go whale watching or see the penguins. But it’s so important to practice safe conduct around wild animals. Not just for them but also for us, we hear every year about tourists in Yellowstone getting hurt by bison because they got too close or closer to home, closer to my home anyways, here in London, people every year get injured by deer in Richmond Park because they got too close.
Oof, that felt really heavy. Okay, we’re going to head back to some more walrus facts.
So walruses are one of those animals that, I think we all realise when we look at them, they’re a bit like penguins, they’re a bit clumsy on the land but then in the water they’re absolutely in their element. In actual fact walruses are actually pretty fast on land and they can move as fast as an average human running. You wouldn’t think that looking at them would you? Of course in the water they’re even faster and they can clock in at 25 miles per hour if they need to! And orcas are one of the walruses natural predators so I guess if you are being chased by an orca then that burst of speed is really a matter of life or death.
Now one of my favourite things to do is finding out the collective nouns that we have for animals. And walruses have loads, they can be called a herd of walruses, or a pod of walruses, or my personal favourite, a huddle! A huddle of walruses. I think that’s so sweet. And going back to that image of the baby walrus being just a giant toddler in a velour tracksuit I feel like it’s also very apt.
And whilst we’re talking about huddles of walruses, male walruses are called bulls and the females are known as cows. And the herds are generally divided by gender, so the females will all have their own herd and males will have their own like bachelor herd and then they’ll come together to mate. And during mating season there’s literally thousands of individuals all coming together. In 2020 there was actually a herd of over 3,000 individuals found together in Russia!
So during mating what will happen is that male walruses will fight each other to become the dominant male on the beach. And then when they’re the dominant male, they get control of that harem of females. It’s the whole survival of the fittest, the strongest one wins kind of thing. Female walruses will give birth to one pup, very VERY rarely they might give birth to twins but generally it’s only just the one. And that pup can swim from the moment it’s born and will stay with its mother for 3 years. Then if it’s a male pup, after 3 years they head on off and find their own bachelor group to hang out with and the females will remain with the herd!
So I’ve mentioned before that walruses are a protected species but weirdly they’re listed as data deficient on the IUCN red list. It’s agreed that the Atlantic walrus population was decimated by hunting in the past and their populations are still struggling to recover. In addition climate change affecting the ice means it really impacts walruses, as there’s less ice for them to rest on and raise their young. It also decreases their feeding areas because if there’s no ice in their former feeding ground and no beaches around then they can’t haul themselves out after foraging and turn their food into blubber so they using up that energy immediately. So it means their feeding grounds are shrinking as they come in closer and closer to shore.
The good news is that you can help! WWF joined up with the British Antarctic Survey and launched a project called “Walrus from Space” and it’s basically a way that anyone can get involved in helping to save walruses. You sign up and then using satellite images you count how many walruses you see. That data is so SO important to conservation to monitor walrus populations and it began in 2021 and you can do it right from your laptop at home! And I will leave the link to that in the show notes.
And I think on that note we’re going to end this episode here. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to all my walrus facts today! And until next time, take care folks!
[music plays under Tash talking] Thank you so much for listening to the under appreciated animals podcast. I hope you found this episode fun and interesting and if you did then please reach out! Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
If you love animals and would like to help support this podcast, you can check out my website for my small business, Hatchling Makes, which you can find at hatchling makes dot com or if you head to the show notes I’ll leave a link there. It’s got wildlife inspired enamel pins, and stickers, and stationery and all that good stuff. Plus 10% of every sale is donated to wildlife conservation.
Also if you have a moment to leave me a review I would be super grateful! That really helps me to know that I’m sharing the animal stories that you want to hear!
You can also discover more under appreciated animals by listening to other episodes which are available wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to subscribe whilst you’re there so you don’t miss out on any future episodes. New episodes will come out every other week on a Friday.
I’m also taking animal suggestions so hop on over into the show notes to find out how to do that if you have an animal you’d like me to highlight on this show! Bonus points if you mention one that I have never heard of before!
That’s all from me until next time take care folks!