What do you get the walrus that has everything?
(From National Geographic / by Jason Bittel)– Don’t waste your money on Furbys and Tickle Me Elmos. According to a new study, what walruses really want to play with are bird carcasses.
It may surprise you to learn that walruses are playful creatures—and you wouldn’t be alone. Compared with more jovial sea lions and seals, even scientists have long thought of the 1.5-ton walrus as the most humorless pinniped. But according to study co-author Andrey Giljov, a zoologist at St. Petersburg University, this prejudice may stem from the fact that walruses are poorly studied.
That’s why Giljov and his fellow zoologist Karina Karenina spent a month in 2015 observing a huge group of walruses on Kolyuchin Island (map) in the Chukchi Sea near Russia. To avoid interfering with the animals’ behavior, the researchers perched atop an icy cliff, braving bitter winds and the risk of falling into the midst of several hundred snoring beach behemoths. (See “Biggest Walrus Gathering Recorded as Sea Ice Shrinks.”)
In the end, the toil was worth it. Giljov and Karenina observed 74 interactions between walruses and seabirds and noted several different kinds of play—the first such observations for this species.
“The reasons why young walruses engage in such behavior are probably the same reasons why all animals begin to play,” says Giljov, whose study appeared recently in the journal acta ethologica. “Play may be important for the development of physical and social skills.”
Researchers have known for some time that young male walruses play-fight on the beach. This is thought to prepare them for competing against rivals when it comes time to breed.
But what’s new about this paper is the way walruses of both sexes appear to use birds as toys.
Sometimes the walruses would sneak up on live birds floating on the water and scare them away. Other times they’d dive down below the birds and rear up out of the water at the last minute, attempting to slash the unsuspecting fowl with their tusks. Glaucous gulls, kittiwakes, tufted puffins—walruses do not seem to care about the species. So long as it was avian and floating, it seemed fair game.