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Totems: Walrus, Part 2

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


How’s this for amazing: walruses can sleep and swim at the same time! Expandable throat pouches act like an inflated life preserver, forming a buoyant collar which allows them to sleep in an upright position. In summer, they live among large, floating islands of ice, hauling out to molt (lose their hair). Even though they only have a sparse covering of short, bristly, cinnamon-colored hair, walruses molt a month or more before a new coat starts to grow. In the meantime, their skin appears bright pink in the sun, or white when swimming in cold water, as their blood rushes to, or recedes, from their skin’s surface.

At least – those large islands of ice are the way it used to be. According to NOAA, sea ice deterioration due to global climate change is the most pervasive threat to walruses and other marine mammals in the Arctic. Additional climate-related factors, such as ocean acidification, and increased development from oil and gas extraction, as well as escalated shipping, also exacerbate habitat loss. More about that in Walrus, Part 3.

Walruses have enormous appetites. After locating some mollusks, clams, whelks or other shellfish on the sea bed bottom, they then blow away the mud with their stiff, mustache-like whiskers. They have about 450 stiff bristles around their mouths. These bristles are embedded in skin that is so sensitive that the walrus can detect clams and mollusks by feel, which is especially helpful in murky waters, or in winter, when it is dark most of the time. Then, because walrus teeth are not strong, they hold the shellfish between their strong lips, using their tongues to suck out the soft tissue like a piston, in their narrow, cylinder-shaped mouths. This creates strong suction like a vacuum cleaner, capable of extracting the clam or other shellfish from its shell. This is another aspect of their power. A person with walrus medicine will work passionately to get to the truth. With heightened sensitivity, they can perceive what is really happening, what it means, as well as its significance.

Oh, by the way, a walrus can eat several thousand mollusks in a single feeding session. Or, put another way, about 100 pounds of food every day. Besides shellfish, they also eat squid, and fish, although they don’t prefer them. And sometimes, worms, sea cucumbers, and crabs get swept up along with the clams. Occasionally, they will hunt a seal, a sea bird, or a beluga whale, using their tusks as weapons.

Here's something interesting: Pinnipeds like walruses usually have stones in their stomachs. Some can be as large as tennis balls! The stones are smooth and rounded. Why do they swallow stones? Nobody knows for sure, but it’s probably intentional. The stones may act as ballast, preventing the walrus from being too buoyant in the water, which would make it more difficult to dive and stay under water. The same is true for crocodiles. Stones counteract the buoyant effects of blubber and air in the lungs. So even though water is the predominant element for people with walrus medicine, enabling them to be flexible and let their feelings flow, they also usually tend to be well-grounded as well.

There is also an aspect to walrus medicine of being the one who shoulders a heavy responsibility. Walruses have thick, wrinkly shoulders and necks, set on a body that is virtually devoid of fur. That thick, lumpy hide can act as a form of protection against a rival’s or predator’s attacks. People who have this spirit animal are intrinsically protective of their own, especially their children.

Do you know how much a typical walrus weighs? Over a ton! A fully grown walrus is two to three thousand pounds! A fatty layer of blubber one to six inches thick under their skin helps walruses insulate against the cold, and when it gets warmer, extra blood flows to the skin’s surface to help them lose body heat. So, it may be a pun to say that folks with this spirit animal are thick-skinned, but it’s another way of describing how resilient they are, no matter what challenges come their way.

During deep winter, which is breeding season, females will gather in small bands of around 10 to 12. There’s a great deal of vocalizing in courtship rituals. The bulls follow the cows under water, robustly announcing their presence and their desire to mate with courtship calls that sound like distant bells ringing. A pair of special pharyngeal throat sacs provide a kind of resonance chamber. A knocking sound typically follows. Then, when the bull emerges from the water, he’ll usually emit a series of harsh clacking noises created by the rapid-fire, teeth-clattering vibrations of his jaws. All this, while 30 feet away (a typical distance that bulls keep from one another) other bulls are doing the same thing.

Once he has mated, a bull will begin to court an entirely new partner until he has bred with a succession of cows – all on his own personal, well-defended breeding site. Perhaps that is why Nature has given walrus the longest baculum, known to Arctic tribes as oosik a.k.a. penis bone, of any mammal – up to 22 inches. Even if a female is impregnated again right after a pup is born, implantation is usually delayed. Females normally breed only every two to three years – sometimes longer. After mating, the fertilized egg is dormant for about 4 months, and then the gestation period, which is about 12 months long, follows – a total of about 16 months. On land, walruses gather in large numbers in rookeries, where they breed and raise their young. Ultimately, only about 10% of the bulls remain with the females after mating.

It’s important for a man with this spirit animal not to be too much of a player, or to be overly territorial, or he may drive away the object of his affection. For the most part, walrus rookeries are rather peaceful, but a dominant male bull will use his tusks to maintain territory – holding his tusks horizontally – which is a well understood threat display to other males. He will make loud sounds, aggressively if necessary, to protect his harem of females during mating season. Once it’s clear who is dominant, the lesser bull usually concedes and turns away without the fight escalating further. One way he shows this is by raising his whiskers to an upright position, which shows submission to the more dominant bull.

Most births take place between May and June during the northward migration, though the calving season can extend anywhere from April to July. A baby walrus can swim right after being born. After birth, the calf usually stays with the mother for about two years, dependent on her for nourishment and for warmth. The calf accompanies its mother on foraging trips and nursing from her on demand. It’s just as well that Mom walrus only has one calf at a time, because she feeds it milk that is 35% high-fat for those two years, so that her calf rapidly gains weight. The proteins in the milk also foster growth. After six months, milk is supplemented with a small amount of solid food.

A mother walrus will use the stiff hairs on her face, especially around the snout, to gently sweep over her newborn, in a behavior called vibrissae. This creates bonding between them. Tusk or flipper hugs also makes the calf feel nurtured. A weary calf will also take a ride on its mother’s back. And if there is any perceived danger, the mother will cradle her calf to her breast with her foreflippers, while taking a deep dive to safety. You can see by these behaviors that people with walrus medicine make great, and selfless parents. They are very protective of their own, and have strong ties with family and friends. Plus, I think it’s very cool that a female who is mothering her own pup will often also feed an orphaned calf. In the film, Arctic Tale, which follows the life of a baby walrus from its beginnings, the mother and baby also have a very protective auntie walrus who alerts them immediately of any approaching danger. This definitely gives an advantage over would-be predators. Seelu, the baby walrus in the film, stayed with the mother until mom walrus decided it was time Seelu was on her own. After making her way on her own for a while, she was able to rejoin the other females again.

When juveniles are ready to disperse, they gather with others of the same age and sex. Young females tend to remain in their mother’s social group, while males wander off after a year or two. Females may reproduce starting at about age four to seven. Males wait longer, until they’re ten to fifteen years old, so they can reach the size of a harem-controlling bull. As already shown, walruses are highly polygynous (many mates) harem breeders. Biologically, this enables the bull to better defend his females and calves. Females are not passive bystanders though, in polygyny. They control the degree of harem formation, by their level of tolerance for other females. Females are also the ones that choose the most effective suitors over other candidates.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 21 years. Send your email address if you wish to be notified with a link to Wisdom when a new Totems article comes out. In-person healing sessions are available once again on an individual basis, as well as long-distance healing. Call or email for more details and to arrange an appointment. Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com For a print version of Totems for Stewards of the Earth,Vol. 1 - delivery U.S., send $22 to P.O. 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370


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