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How do scientists study walrus?

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Walruses interact with each other on the shores of the Laptev Sea

Traditionally much of what we know about nature and wildlife came from classic natural history studies based on direct observation. Want to know walrus? Go live near or among them across seasons and for several years.

This is exactly what two of our expedition members, Misha and Anatoly, did for many years on Wrangell Island, far to the east of our current location. Spending countless hours observing, counting, and learning the behavior of another species.

Tom and I, while also trained observers, came from a different background – one that relies more on modern tools and technology. Replacing long field season with much shorter stints and using tools like satellite telemetry and genetics to untangle the many questions we have about how species live today and how they evolved over time. Both approaches are necessary to better understand the species we share the planet with and the broader ecosystems that support us all. Each by itself is limited in what questions it can answer.

On this expedition, we rely on both approaches, observational and analytical:

  • Counting individuals and estimating the age and sex composition of the herd
    Over time, this gives us an idea of population size and population health
  • Noting behaviors and response to surroundings
    For example, how do they interact with sea ice, or with predators like polar bears?
  • Biopsy samples of skin and fat about 1 inch in diameter
    A biopsy is basically a skin punch and can be taken from a distance and with minimal disturbance using a small crossbow. The bolt, as crossbow arrows are called, is fitted with a sterile biopsy punch surrounded by a rubber stopper to control depth and limit the impact. Walrus either do not respond or they quickly look around to see which neighbor may have tusked them- something they do to one another regularly! The bolts have a string attached and are retrieved by hand.

The genetic samples will let us know how the Laptev walrus are related to their relatives around the Arctic and finally answer the question of whether these are a distinct group, or subspecies, of walrus. The genetic samples will be sent to labs in Russia and an international partner for analysis and we should have new information by year-end.

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