Walrus 'haul-out' puzzles U.S. scientists

Sept. 13, 2010 at 4:57 PM
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POINT LAY, Alaska, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Scientists say tens of thousands of walruses have hauled themselves from the ocean to gather on an Alaskan beach in a behavior that has researchers puzzled.

The huge pod of marine mammals has congregated on a beach just north of Point Lay on Alaska's Arctic Ocean coast, the Alaska Dispatch reports.

"You can see them right now," Mayor Leo Ferreira said Friday. "I am on the main road facing the ocean. I am right by the church and I can see them right here and they are about two miles away."

Ferreira theorizes that ship traffic is diverting the walruses to shore in unusually large numbers.

But government scientists say they suspect it has more to do with an increasing lack of sea ice.

Walruses have been observed hauling out onto land in large numbers in Russia, but never on the Alaska side of their migratory corridor in such huge numbers.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists have tagged some of the walruses to track and study their movements. They're particularly interested in how much more swimming the hauled-out walruses, most of which are females, will have to do to find food.

They're also concerned for young walruses that depend on a mother's care for two years and which nurse for the first six to seven months of life.

"We suspect it will have real change in the cost of making a living for the walrus. Instead of rolling off the ice and having your food right there, they might have to commute," said Tony Fischbach, a USGS walrus researcher.

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