Atlantic Walrus

  • Polar bears playing at the Eclipse Sound floe edge
    A young Atlantic walrus resting on an ice floe. Bråsvellbreen, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard.

    Danita Delimont/

  • Atlantic walruses play fighting. Torellneset, Svalbard.

    Joe McDonald/

  • Atlantic walruses on floating ice. Franz Josef Land.

    Yaroslav Nikitin/

  • An Atlantic walrus haulout on Vaygach Island, situated between the Barents and Kara seas.

    Maximillian Cabinet/

Quick Facts

Scientific name:
Odobenus rosmarus ssp. rosmarus
Indigenous name:
Aiviq (Inuktitut)
IUCN conservation status:

Near threatened (assessed February 2, 2016)

Genome sequenced?
No. of chromosomes:
16 x 2
Size of genome:

Not known/Not sequenced

Did You Know?

  • Along with the Atlantic walrus, there is a second subspecies of walrus—the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus ssp. divergens). The Pacific walrus lives in the Pacific Ocean and its IUCN status is currently described as "Data Deficient" (assessed September 30, 2014).
  • Although the size of the Atlantic walrus genome is unknown, the Pacific walrus genome comprises 2.4 billion base pairs.
  • There is debate in the scientific community as to whether a third subspecies of walrus exists—the Laptev walrus (Odobenus rosmarus laptevi)—found in the Laptev Sea. Opponents argue that these walruses are in fact Pacific walruses.
  • Walruses are polygynous, males compete for females either on the ice or water from February to April.
  • Both male and female walruses tusks grow continuously throughout their lifetime, these tusks can be used as symbols of age, sex, and social status.
  • In the wild male walruses only live to about 15 years due to their dangerous lifestyle while females can live up to 25–30 years.
  • Walruses travel long distances by either swimming or riding ice floes.
  • Walruses are very social animals and are often found in groups that can range from a few individuals to thousands.
  • Most females give birth when they reach the age of 7–10 years old, and only have one calf every three years.
  • A walruses primary predators are polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and killer whales (Orcinus orca).
  • Due to the shape of walrus fins, they can swim up to 35 km/h if startled or threatened.
  • Walrus’ haired skin can change colour, it is usually brown but can turn pink on a warm day and white after a long cold dive.
  • There are two subspecies of walrus, the Atlantic walrus and the Pacific walrus. The Atlantic walrus is slightly smaller of the species.
  • Walruses are the only living representatives of the family Odobenidae and an important link in the Arctic food chain between benthic invertebrates and humans. Their importance to Inuit is substantial in both cultural and economic terms. Families spend the summer at traditional hunting camps and in this way help to maintain the Inuk way of life.


Life History

Atlantic walruses are large pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus) with front and hind flippers, like those of seals, that they use to dive and propel themselves through the water. Their tusks are upper canine teeth and they have a mustache made from vibrissae. They can grow to be up to 1100 kg and are a cinnamon brown colour but can change to be white or pink depending on their temperature. The Atlantic walrus occupies territories from the eastern Canadian arctic to the western Kara Sea. Atlantic walruses require habitats with shallow water (about 80 m or less) and continental shelf areas that support bivalve reproduction, open waters that give access to feeding areas, and nearby ice or land that can be used as haul out spots for resting. Walruses feed primarily on bivalve molluscs. Females mature between 5–10 years of age and have approximately one calf every three years with a gestation period of 11 months.

Importance in Indigenous Culture

Walruses play an important role in Indigenous cultures by being hunted. Residents of Puvirnituq, Akulivik, Ivujivik, and Salluit regularly take walruses from the Hudson Strait portion of Hudson Bay. Walruses provide an important staple in the subsistence economy in the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The hunting of the walrus and the sharing of its proceeds continues to be of great social and cultural significance in Indigenous arctic culture. As well, walrus meat and the ivory from their tusks holds great economic value. In the Inuit culture the walrus is used for meat, dog food, ivory, and a symbol of cultural importance. They are a key species in the marine Arctic food web, they have been harvested by the Arctic Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, however during the 19th and 20th centuries when commercial harvesting of the walrus began there was a rapid decline in population along the arctic regions. By 1928, commercial harvesting of the walrus was banned in Canada.

Conservation Issues

As assessed by the IUCN Red List, Atlantic walruses are listed under "near threatened" status. In Canada its populations are threatened by hunting, noise disturbances, industrial activities, and climatic warming. As the sea ice melts and disappears this will require the walrus to adapt to different environments than the one they have occupied for centuries. Since they require such niche habitats, the destruction by global warming to their habitats will cause a rapid and extreme decline to their populations. Hunting is the main cause of mortality among the Atlantic walrus. The total abundance of Atlantic walrus was assessed to be likely just under 25,000 individuals as of 2016 with sub-populations increasing.

Role of Genomics

There is low genetic variation among historical Atlantic walrus perhaps due to the extreme overhunting of them during the 19th and 20th centuries.


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