Let's venture into the freezing Arctic Circle, home to the Pacific Walrus and Atlantic Walrus. Although these marine creatures may not be as famous as the adorable penguins and seals, a closer look through our walrus facts will reveal a world worth exploring.
Our fact list provides an in-depth understanding of their unique characteristics and behaviors. We've covered everything from the various purposes of their tusks to their whiskers' intriguing functions. So without further ado, we present our walrus facts, encouraging you to appreciate this arctic species.
Related: To learn more about their fellow arctic inhabitant, check out our polar bear facts.
Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus, with a Latin translation of tooth-walking sea horse) are pinnipeds–including sea lions, ringed seals, eared seals, and fur seals–that prefer to congregate in large herds, ranging from just a few hundred to a few thousand. These gatherings are not random, as the males and females prefer to stick with their kind outside of the breeding season.
In these herds, the leader is always a dominant male walrus who establishes his position through displays of strength and imposing roars. Communication within the group comprises barks, bellows, growls, and roars. This highly verbal form of communication serves as their version of a group chat, enabling them to ask for help or send other messages.
Moreover, male and female walruses communicate through body language; they use their tusks to assert dominance or express aggression. While one may assume that these behaviors are innate, young walruses learn them from their mothers and through observation of adult members of the herd.
One of the most intriguing walrus facts is their sturdy tusks that they use for their survival. Both walrus subspecies–Pacific Walruses and Atlantic Walruses–have tusks. These tusks are elongated canine teeth that serve many practical purposes.
Throughout a walrus's life, these tusks grow to 12 pounds each. Both male and female walruses have tusks made of dentin, a substance similar to the enamel of human teeth, and coated with a layer of cementum that enhances their durability.
In the Arctic landscape, walruses use their tasks during "hauling out," pulling their bulky bodies from the frigid depths onto the ice. Male walruses get aggressive during mating season by using their tusks to fight other males. Moreover, the tusks also create and maintain breathing holes in the dense ice cover, a necessity in their icebound environment1.
If you're wondering what's their reaction when a polar bear corners them, they will use their tusks to defend themselves. But most of the time, their first response is to flee.
Related: Check our elephant facts to expand your knowledge on tusked animals.
A walrus proudly flaunts a formidable array of these whiskers, or vibrissae, numbering anywhere from 400 to 700, meticulously arranged on either side of its snout. Moreover, each is a susceptible sensory organ, capable of moving independently and assessing the surrounding environment.
Additionally, walrus vibrissae have blood-filled sinuses that vibrate with each beat of the walrus's heart, rendering them highly sensitive. These vibrissae also shine when the walrus dives into the ocean depths where sunlight cannot penetrate.
Under such depths, each whisker sweeps the ocean floor, searching for bivalve mollusks, fishes, and sea cucumbers. They can also use this to detect their natural predators. Furthermore, these whiskers allow walruses o distinguish between various types of prey, even in the ocean's darkest depths.
Related: Do you know our pet cats' whiskers have many functions? Head to our cat facts to know more.
The walrus can withstand freezing temperatures, with its skin about 1-2 inches thick. Moreover, the walrus's skin also performs a complex temperature regulation process. The skin turns pale in colder temperatures, restricting blood flow to conserve heat. Conversely, the skin darkens as blood vessels expand, releasing excess heat.
The walrus have a generous six-inch layer of fat under their skin. This blubber is a pantry of fat reserved for lean times when food is scarce. It also grants the walrus buoyancy to swim while providing vital insulation in the chilly waters of the Arctic and subarctic regions. Additionally, the fat protects the walrus against the immense pressure changes of the ocean depths.
Related: Do you want to be an animal expert? Head to our seal facts to distinguish these two arctic creatures better.
The gestation period of a female walrus, or cow, is among the longest in the animal kingdom, lasting an astounding 15 to 16 months. Typically, they give birth to a single calf, although twins are rare.
This slow birth rate and extended gestation period ensure that each calf gets the best possible start in life, receiving much parental care and standing a better chance of surviving the harsh Arctic environment.
From the outset, a newborn walrus calf weighs between 45 to 75 kg (99 to 165 lbs). Likewise, it can swim a short while after birth. At five to six months, the calf begins to consume solid food. However, it remains reliant on its mother's rich, fatty milk until its second year. This nursing period is essential, fueling the calf's rapid growth in its earliest months. On the other hand, male walruses, or bulls, leave their mate and calf behind after mating.
The next walrus fact is a fun one!
A study reveals that walruses sleep in various positions. Using their tusks, they can float at the ocean's surface, lie on the bottom, stand, lean, or hang from ice floes. Their REM sleep underwater, however, only lasts 4 to 5 minutes because they need to breathe regularly.
When on land, walruses enter a deep sleep lasting up to 19 hours. They need these recovery periods because they can swim non-stop for up to 84 hours. This deep sleep presents visible posture changes, muscle jerks, and rapid eye movements.
The study also uncovers that walruses undergo "unihemispheric sleep," where one half of the brain sleeps while the other stays active. The ability of walruses to swim continuously while half their brain is sleeping confounds researchers, which could prompt a reevaluation of sleep regulation and functionality across species3.
In the wild, a walrus can live for 20 to 30 years, exceeding many sea creatures. For example, one wild walrus managed to live for 40 years.
Despite its appearance, life presents numerous challenges to the walrus. For instance, their calves are vulnerable targets to predators like polar bears and orcas. Nevertheless, an adult walrus can rely on its imposing size and impressive tusks, extending up to a meter, to fend off dangers.
The Yupik and Inuit peoples have coexisted with the Atlantic walrus and Pacific walrus in the Arctic region for centuries; the animal is a vital element of their way of life and cultural heritage. The walrus represents strength, wisdom, and protection, embodying the spirits of their ancestors.
Hunting walrus is a cultural event that strengthens communal bonds. Beyond a source of meat, its skin and fat, which are nutrient-dense and known as 'muktuk,' provide much-needed energy in the challenging Arctic climate.
Moreover, its long tusks are a valuable resource for creating various tools, artwork, and jewelry. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples use walrus skin to make boats, clothing, and traditional 'igloo' coverings.
The relationship between the walrus and these indigenous people involves respect and sustainability, predicated on using every part of the walrus.
Climate change is eroding walrus habitats at an alarming rate2. The sea ice is their resting pad between deep-sea dining adventures, nurseries for newborns, and meeting points for mate selection.
Today, the retreating ice forces walruses to cram themselves onto land, causing dangerous stampedes and making them easy targets for predators—unfortunately, the little ones and the weak bear the brunt of this harsh reality.
On the other hand, the issue of illegal hunting remains serious. Walrus tusks are in high demand for their beauty and value, leading to hunters targeting them. Even though indigenous communities hold legal rights to hunt walruses for sustenance, the flourishing black market for walrus ivory has led to a surge in illegal hunting.
Let these walrus facts strengthen our advocacy to protect Arctic animals from climate change. Share them on your social media feeds to spread awareness.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with W.
Fay, F. H. (1982). Ecology and biology of the Pacific walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens Illiger. North American Fauna, (74), 1-279.
Jay, C. V., Fischbach, A. S., & Kochnev, A. A. (2012). Walrus areas of use in the Chukchi Sea during sparse sea ice cover. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 468, 1-13.
Pryaslova, J., Lyamin, O. I., Siegel, J. M., & Mukhametov, L. M. (2009). Behavioral sleep in the walrus. Behavioural Brain Research, 201(1), 80–87.