WWF seeks walrus detectives after the visit of ‘vagrant’ Thor

WWF’s Rod Downie on importance of walruses

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Thor the walrus hit the headlines at the start of 2023 – and now the WWF is trying to recruit “walrus detective” to keep tabs on the huge marine mammals from space. Starting on Tuesday (January 17), the WWF, in conjunction with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is inviting members of the public to get involved in their Walrus from Space project to help with vital research.

Thor has became something of a local celebrity during stopovers at Scarborough and Blyth in recent weeks – but his popularity masks a more concerning trend, namely that the tusked animals are rarely spotted so far from their arctic habitat.

Walruses are facing the consequences of the climate crisis and scientists are keep to know more about how they are affected.

Walrus Detectives will help contribute to conservation science by searching for walrus in thousands of satellite images collected by space technology and intelligence company Maxar Technologies.

The images found to contain walrus from the first year have been reloaded into the citizen science platform and the ‘detectives’ are now invited to count the walrus in those images to contribute to population data.

The five-year project, in cooperation with scientists from around the Arctic, aims to deliver a whole population census of the Atlantic and Laptev walruses using satellite imagery and explore what might happen to them in the context of rapid climate change.

This will help scientists better understand the impact of climate change on populations of this iconic species and help safeguard their future.

Rod Downie, Chief Polar Advisor for WWF-UK said: “Thor is an Atlantic walrus, he is a ‘vagrant’ who has travelled beyond his natural range in Arctic waters. As long as Thor is able to feed on his usual diet of clams or mussels off the seabed, there is no reason he could not survive short term in UK seas, although he would eventually want to return to colder waters. Arctic wildlife is facing the full reality of the climate crisis, as their sea ice habitat is in rapid and dramatic decline. However, we would not attribute the presence of a vagrant like Thor in UK waters to climate change.

Mr Downie continued: “Walrus are big, powerful animals, but they are also increasingly vulnerable to the implications of the climate crisis, as the sea ice is literally melting out from underneath them.

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He added: “What we are trying to do – with the help of members of the public – is better understand walrus, how they are being affected by the climate crisis now and how they might respond in a climate altered future. We are doing this to provide evidence to support the conservation of the species across its range.”

Hannah Cubaynes, Conservation Scientist for British Antarctic Survey, said: “The Arctic is a vast and remote region, making it a difficult place for scientists to work, and we know that walrus can be very easily disturbed by human presence.

“So that is why we have teamed up with Maxar, a satellite imagery and data provider to collect images of walrus haul-outs, before loading them onto the company’s GeoHive platform. We are asking people at home to sign up to help us search for and later count walrus. But you don’t have to travel to the ends of the Earth, you can do it from the comfort of your own home.”

The WWF and BAS science teams recently visited beaches where walrus haul out in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic.

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Despite it being a successful trip to help calibrate and validate satellite imagery counts of the walrus, the team also saw first-hand how real the threats of climate change are in Svalbard.

This region of the northern Barents Sea is warming faster than elsewhere in the Arctic and may be warming between five to seven times the global average, making it the fastest warming region on Earth.

The benefit of using satellite imagery is that it is non-invasive and does not disturb the walrus. The counting survey will help to better understand future population trends of walrus, which is currently not well known.

Aspiring conservationists can help protect the species by going to wwf.org.uk/walrusfromspace where they can register to participate, and then be guided through a training module before joining the walrus census.

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