In an article written by Dan Joling for NBC News, it was reported that scientists are worried that the melting ice is deeply affecting the behaviour of walruses in Anchorage, Alaska. The Pacific Walrus typically uses the ice in the summer as habitat, to rest and recuperate from swimming in the oceans.
Walruses are not like whales who can keep swimming indefinitely, but require a lot of rest and therefore spend a lot of time on land or on the ice shelves that they rely on. However, with the disappearance of the ice sheets during the summer, the walruses are quickly losing their habitats.
Since the year 2008, scientists from the USGS including Anthony Fischbach and his colleagues in Russia have been tracking walruses and studying their behaviour. They used crossbows to attach radio devices on the large, lumbering animals.
They have recently published their findings and have concluded that the walruses are changing their behaviour because of the missing ice. They note that they will be using their coastal resting grounds more often and feed in the areas close to the shore. The environmental impact of these changed habits are still being determined.
Just a few years ago, scientists were not worried about the habitats of these large sea mammals. The walrus colonies were far away from any humanly accessible areas because of the rows of ice that separates them from civilization. These natural barriers allowed them to thrive with no problems.
However, now that the ice is gone, tourism is now making its way into the area, and there are more commercial vehicles trawling through the area which pose a threat to the existing walrus colonies. In fact, there was a very tragic occurrence once where more than a hundred young walruses were crushed under a stampede of panicking adults. The stampede was likely caused by either a polar bear, human hunters, or an airplane.
However, the walrus colonies are still not listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added provisions that the walruses should be protected but not be placed as threatened. They are definitely not on the priority list of species that have to be conserved.
Scientists are still studying how these walruses will adapt to their new, ice-less environment. Right now, they are studying the colonies that have gathered and are trying to determine whether they will deplete their food sources too quickly. They will also take into account if the colony will produce less offspring than they usually do.
They will also study the health effects on the females, who will now be forced to forage in farther areas because of the lack of ice to rest on. This type of extra exercise may be dangerous to the survival of these walruses, who are not used to this much strain on their bodies.
All in all, scientists are fearing the worse that climate change may force the animals to extinction in the near future.