Today’s Solutions: March 29, 2023

Imagine the marvelous mass of a walrus, lying leisurely in its natural habitat. What does the landscape surrounding your imagined walrus look like? You’re probably picturing this tusked creature on a frigid chunk of ice, and that’s because walruses eventually settled mostly in two main places on Earth: the North Pacific and the North Atlantic. 

So it’s strange to think about the ancestors of today’s walruses hanging out in tropical climates—because that’s where they originally resided. Over millions of years, the prehistoric predecessors of the walruses we know today followed food sources to colder places, grew long ivory tusks to protect them from predators like polar bears, and became covered in thick, bristled skin with a generous six-inch layer of blubber under it to keep them warm. 

Many walrus ended up in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and there they used their sensitive whiskers to locate delicious clams before breaking them open with their flippers and noses. Sometimes they would even hunt seals. It was a good life for walruses up in Svalbard—that is until poachers targeted them for their valuable ivory tusks.

By the early 1950s, only a small population of Svalbard’s walruses survived the more than 300 years of ivory hunting. To prevent the walruses from disappearing completely, the Norwegian government banned commercial hunting of them, and, with this protection the walruses proved resilient.

In 2006, researchers were thrilled to count 2,629 walruses in Svalbard, and the latest count in 2018 recorded 5,503.

“The walrus is like a mythical creature,” says research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences. “They’re like no other animal on earth. Their closest living relatives are separated by almost 20 million years.”

It’s of utmost importance to continue protecting the great walrus, as it is the last remaining species in a family called Odobenidae, which in Greek means “those who walk with their teeth.” Norway’s success story can only hope to inspire other conservationist initiatives to push forward, even if things may seem bleak, and serves to confirm yet again that nature remains resilient, as long as we give it space to do so.

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