Later this spring, if all goes according to plan, a baby walrus will be born at the Aquarium du Québec. It's a cute story, but also an extremely unusual one: live walrus births in captivity are so rare that only a handful have ever been recorded in North America.
The last time a walrus in captivity was born anywhere in the world was apparently in 2014, at a German zoo. According to the sparse information available, said Quebec curator Jill Marvin, just 19 captive walruses have gotten pregnant at facilities across North America since as far back as the 1930s, when recordkeeping began. Of those, 15 live pups have been born, and only one survived into adulthood.
But the Quebec story is even more exceptional, because there's actually a second pregnant walrus there, too. Arnaliaq's baby is due in April, and Samka's should be born in June. (The dad in both cases is a walrus named Boris.) "The pregnancies happened 100 per cent naturally," said Marvin, who partly credits the aquarium. "We've got a great vet team, they're healthy and well-cared-for."
Even so, she recognized that the next few weeks are critical—and not without risk to the animals. "Giving birth is difficult. Calves can be 55 kilos [121 pounds] and up," she said. "Maybe the position of the baby will be incorrect. It may be a hard labour." Or maybe, once the pup is born, the mother will struggle to nurse. The aquarium is carefully preparing for each scenario.
The promise of walrus pups doesn't attract the same level of attention as, say, baby pandas, a critically endangered species. But the situation in Quebec shows just how little we know about walrus sex and reproduction—and how dicey these can be. According to Marvin, there are about 40 walruses in zoos and aquariums worldwide, half of them in North America. Because these animals have such a hard time reproducing, many must have been captured as pups in the wild. (Arnaliaq, an Atlantic walrus, was taken by Inuit hunters north of Ungava Bay in northeastern Canada, according to Marvin. Boris and Samka came from Russia.)
A media frenzy has erupted around the walrus love triangle of Samka, Boris and Arnie. The last time there was anything like it was in 2011, when a female walrus at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, near San Francisco, was expecting. Uquq's pregnancy came after years of effort on the part of researchers there, including a bizarre series of experiments that saw an artificial walrus vagina introduced to arouse a 2,200-pound Pacific walrus.
The researchers, including marine mammal reproduction experts and a male fertility doctor, discovered that male walruses—which breed seasonally—weren't fertile at the same time as females. Their mating signals were mixed up because, in California, day-night circadian rhythms are different than in their Arctic home. In a study, the team described how hormonally shifted the male walrus' window to coincide with the female's.
Uquq was in labour more than 40 hours. The pup she eventually delivered was stillborn. "The staff is extremely upset but attending to the welfare of Uquq at this time," animal care director Michael Muraco said in a press statement.
Muraco recognized that the odds were against Uquq delivering a healthy pup, but park staff had high hopes anyway. She was getting state-of-the-art care, including regular ultrasounds to check on the fetus. (Because Uquq was trained, it was easier to get her to lie down for the procedure, park trainers said.)
The two pregnancies will be an opportunity to gain insights into a process we still barely understand
With the pressures of climate change, "there are major conservation concerns about the walrus. It's a species that's poorly understood," said Andrew Trites, a marine mammal expert at the University of British Columbia, who spoke to Motherboard over Skype from La Paz, Mexico, where he's doing research on sea lions and other animals. There are thought to be about 250,000 walruses living in the Arctic. "They've been hunted for thousands of years. They're very wary. They are a difficult species to get to know."
And they're extremely easy to disturb, said Trites, who's worked with wild walruses in the Bering Sea, using an icepick to collect frozen feces and learn about what they eat. "Just an airplane overhead can cause a stampede, and in the process they crush a young one," he told me.
On one of his research trips, Trites met an Alaskan native who had collected walrus pups for a zoo. "I said, where did you get these calves from? Did they wash ashore? And he said, no—I killed their mother." The man, a subsistence hunter, had few qualms about it, Trites recalled. "I realize his life was very different from my own." Trites does see value in captive walruses for scientists like himself. In Quebec, the two pregnancies will be an opportunity to gain insights into a process we still barely understand.
Marvin is clearly protective of her walruses. Arnie and Samka are both being monitored round-the-clock, including with ultrasounds, and are taking prenatal vitamins with their diet of fish, squid, shrimp and mussels. The Quebec aquarium is consulting with other institutions, including Six Flags, and preparing for the births in every way possible.After speaking with Motherboard, Marvin hurried off to interview for new staff, in case the walruses need extra care—if the pups refuse to nurse and require bottlefeeding, for instance. "There is a chance something could go wrong. Yes, I am a nervous director," she admitted. "These animals are really special to us."