What Does It Take To Map A Walrus Hangout? 160 Years And A Lot Of Help

From NPR:

“The longer I looked at them the more heightened was my disgust; for they resembled distorted, mortified, shapeless masses of flesh,” he wrote. Almost off-handedly, he noted their number — around 150, all male — before pondering their resemblance to “so many gnomes or demons of fairy romance.”

Now Elliott’s musings have been translated into a new sort of language:

For the first time, scientists have built a single database showing where Pacific walruses have gathered for the past 160 years, including sites along both the Russian and Alaskan coasts. The tool, which was published last month, will be used to protect vulnerable animals. (You can download it here, and view it in Google Earth or other mapping programs.)

And it’s all thanks to Native hunters, Victorian explorers, aerial observers, anthropologists, biologists, geologists, conservationists and librarians.

On one level, walrus haulouts — a group of walruses resting on land together — might seem straightforward.

Walruses feed off the ocean bottom, but they can’t stay in the water 24/7. They can flop on ice floes for naps, especially when there’s plenty of sea ice around, but sometimes they rest on land instead. And if they’re gathering on the shore, well, safety in numbers, right?

But even to experts on walrus behavior, there’s something mysterious about a gathering of animals — sometimes 100,000 or more — on a specific patch of beach.

“You spend all this time trying to get to them, and then you get to them and they’re all there,” says Tony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist and co-author of the new database. “You’ve walked for miles down the beach or you’ve flown for 50 miles, and you get to them and you say, ‘Why are you here? Why are you not at the place that’s closer to where you get your groceries?’ “

Walruses will …

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