Walrus Adaptability and Long-term Responses; Using multi-proxy data to project Sustainability (WALRUS)

Project Info

Lead Researcher(s)

PI:
Nicole Misarti

Co-Is:
Lara Horstmann (UAF)
Link Olson (UAF)

Project Team

Senior Research Personnel:
Anne Jensen (Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation)
Tara Fulton (University of Alberta)

Students:
Casey Clark (UAF-PhD)
Patrick Charapata (UAF-MS)

Partners:
Eskimo Walrus Commission
North Slope Borough Wildlife Management
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Rural Alaska Honors Institute
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Rasmuson Library Oral History Program
Museum of the North - Mammology

Project Dates

5/15/2013 - 5/14/2017

Funding

*Please note that Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) contributed funding to the Arctic SEES program for this project

Media Links

Links to popular media interviews and articles about this project:

Research gives insight into historic walrus population dynamics (UAF News)

Old walrus bones dug up in Alaska's Arctic could shed new light on Point Lay haulouts (ADN)

They are the walrus(es) (Geographical)

Poachers May Have Killed These 25 Walruses For Their Heads and Tusks (Vice News)

UAF Scientists Land Grant For Most Extensive Pacific Walrus Research to Date (KUAC)

The walrus detectives (High Country News)

35000 Walrosse in Alaska (Tagesanzeiger)

Scientists receive 1.7 million grant to study Pacific walruses (Alaska Business Monthly)

Other walrus links:

Walruses in Local News

Project Summary

Background

Walruses are considered a sentinel species in the Arctic; they are a species that warns humans of upcoming danger. Walruses are harbingers of climate change, or so we believe. They need sea ice to rest, bear their young, and ice is also important to begin the food web leading to walrus food. Without sea ice, walruses are losing their habitat, and that could mean that their numbers are declining. Climate change is nothing new, walruses have weathered change before, but the problem is that there are not enough long term data for us to understand how the walrus population adjusts to a changing Arctic climate.

Our project combines modern, historic, and ancient data that spans the last 2,000 years to help us better understand how Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) populations react to both warming and cooling trends in the Arctic. This 2,000 year time span covers not only our present conditions, but two warmer climate periods (known colloquially as the Roman Warm and Medieval Warm), as well as a cooler period (Little Ice Age). Integrating archaeology, ethnology, biology, ecology, and traditional ecological knowledge, our team will assemble long-term trends of walrus diet, foraging location, stress response, and stock genetics over the last 2,000 years. Each type of data will act as a piece of the puzzle, to give us a clearer picture of change and response to change through time in the Pacific walrus population.

Why are we doing this? Obviously we like walruses and we care about the health of our Arctic ecosystems; but there is another serious side to this that goes beyond how one species tolerates climate change. The walrus is an important part of the Arctic ecosystem and this ecosystem includes humans. Walruses are actually an important component of the subsistence harvest for many coastal communities in Alaska and other areas of the North. We hope our research will help these communities plan for a sustainable future and understand the impact that current changes in the Arctic will have on a key resource.

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Pacific walrus haulout locations. Orange dots denote haulouts that are new or have increased substantially in size since 2006 (adapted from Robards and Garlich-Miller 2013).

Project Updates

Selecting, sampling, and preparing of historic walrus bone samples from the University of Alaska Museum of the North is well under way. Over 80 samples from individual walruses are currently being processed for steroid hormone, stable isotope, trace element, and DNA analyses. Skeletons available at the museum were collected from the 1930s-1960s, and include male and female walruses of all ages.

We also received a tremendous response from subsistence hunters this year (2014), who collected blood, blubber, muscle, whiskers, teeth, and bone from 50 walruses. We are beginning to process these samples now. Thanks to all subsistence harvesters and to the EWC, NSB, and ADF&G for their efforts in coordinating the sample collection in support of our research.

We have made inroads in recording traditional ecological knowledge as well. With the help of our partners at the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, we have now digitized and transcribed 54 tape recordings housed within the Oral History Archives. We selected these tapes, because all the interviewees mentioned walruses in some way. We are thrilled that these time stamped transcripts are now available to all who might be interested in learning more from elders, hunters, artists, etc. about life in coastal communities over the last 50+ years.

  • Water and Environmental Research Center (WERC)
  • 437 Duckering
  • 1760 Tanana Loop
  • PO Box 75 5860
  • Fairbanks, AK 99775-5860, USA