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Russian researchers make breakthrough in the study of Laptev walrus

03 october 2022
The expedition of WWF-Russia and Institute of Ecology and Evolution collected unique data on the most poorly studied - Laptev - walrus. For the first time, scientists were able to examine haulouts, take biopsy samples and install satellite transmitters on the animals. The study will allow developing effective measures for the protection of the red-listed subspecies.
Experts of WWF-Russia and A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences in two weeks covered more than 1800 miles (about 3300 km) on the sailing yacht "Apostol Andrey" (captain N.A. Litau) - from the port of Tiksi to Naryan-Mar. The main work was carried out on the eastern coast of the Taimyr Peninsula and on the islands in the Laptev Sea.
“Despite the fact that many northern regions in the Russian Arctic are already quite well studied, walruses in the Laptev Sea still remain a kind of “terra incognita” for their researchers and ecologists. Which haulouts animals prefer to use in the summer season and how they are interconnected, how long and how many walruses rest on them - this is only a small part of the questions of interest to specialists. We know very little about these animals, primarily because this is a very remote area, - says Varvara Semenova, the senior Arctic biodiversity projects coordinator at WWF-Russia. “Therefore, the primary task of the expedition was to visit all the places where, according to the literature and survey data, one could meet walruses, map them and estimate the number of animals resting.”
Yacht `Apostle Andrey`
The expedition team
Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia
In total, scientists managed to find and examine five haulouts ranging from 50 to 1000 species. Each was filmed using drones so that the exact number of animals could be counted. In addition, scientists were able to take about 50 biopsy samples, which is considered a very solid result. Genetic analysis will finally close the question of the status of the Laptev walrus subspecies. Experts disagree on whether the Laptev walrus is a separate subspecies (which Russian scientists insist on - in Russia it is listed in the Red Book) or is it a population of the Pacific walrus subspecies that lives to the east - foreign experts adhere to this theory.
Also, tissue samples will be tested for organic contaminants and heavy metals, which can affect the immunity of animals, their general condition and ability to reproduce. These studies are especially relevant in the context of the industrial development of the Laptev Sea and the active development of navigation on the Northern Sea Route.
© Danila Skorobogatov / IEE RAS
Запуск дрона с борта судна
© Danila Skorobogatov / IEE RAS
Crossbow for taking biopsy samples
Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia
The installation of satellite tags for 15 animals can be considered a great success. A small transmitter allows you to track the movements of walruses. Ideally, it can work for several months, but some walruses manage to throw it off earlier. This often happens on the shore, when walruses toss and rub their backs against the ground.
Walrus with satelite tag
Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia
“Satellite transmitters make it possible not only to follow the movements of animals, but to determine habitats that are critical for them. First of all, these are the territories where walruses linger for rest (haulouts) or feeding grounds. Walruses feed on the so-called "feed banks". This is a shallow area rich in bivalves, where walruses can comfortably dive and find food, - said Svetlana Artemyeva, a researcher at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution.. – These key areas that need special attention and control over economic activity. In the future, the key habitats of walruses should fall within the nature protected areas being created, or other conservation measures should be applied to them.”
The first satellite data have already surprised scientists: one of the “tagged” walruses moved from the coast of Taimyr to the New Siberian Islands, covering more than 800 kilometers in a week. Experts continue to monitor the travels of pinnipeds, together with the analysis of biological samples and collected materials, which will take several months.
Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia