Atlantic walruses, Odobenus rosmarus, flock to haulouts, a place of safety where they can mingle, mate, and luxuriate. These congregations typically form on drifting sea ice or across Arctic islands, but a surprising discovery in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula has found an enormous walrus haulout of around 3,000 animals on the shores of the Kara Sea. Walruses in this area have been hit particularly hard by shrinking ice, with the ice-free season increasing in length each year as a result of human activity and climate change.
Shrinking sea ice is an increasing problem, putting the lives and habitats of both wild and human populations at risk. As vast swathes of ice melt and release trapped methane into the air, and a reduction in their white surface stops reflecting energy from the sun, the climate on Earth gets hotter and hotter. Animals like walruses and polar bears who rely on sea ice to hunt and mate are particularly at risk, and their plight is only worsened by oil and gas exploration in the valuable but ever-shrinking icy landscape.
Walruses are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, with an estimated population number of 112,500. They are protected from hunting for their blubber and ivory thanks to bans on commercial hunting internationally since the mid-20th century but still face an uncertain future due to their reliance on disappearing habitats for species-sustaining activities such as mating and raising their pups.
This new, mega-haulout was discovered in 2019 but was only officially documented in October. It’s a positive sign for the species but not substantial enough to conclude that the wild population has taken a turn for the better. Further research will be conducted on the congregation with researchers having fitted satellite tags and taken DNA samples to monitor the progress of the population. Exactly why so many were drawn to this remote corner of the Yamal Peninsula isn’t yet clear, but it’s hoped that finding out what brought them here may help conservation scientists protect groups elsewhere.
[H/T: Moscow Reuters]