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Against All Odds, a Walrus Was Just Born in Captivity

The Quebec aquarium expects a second walrus birth soon.

by Kate Lunau
May 9 2016, 3:55pm

Arnaliaq and her pup, seen via surveillance camera footage. Image: Aquarium du Québec

On Saturday—conveniently the day before Mother's Day—a walrus gave birth to a healthy pup at the Aquarium du Québec. It's the first walrus ever born in captivity in Canada, and one of just a handful of such births anywhere, since modern record-keeping began.

But things could get even crazier, because a second female is also pregnant there, due at the end of June. It's enough to make you wonder if there's something in the water supply.

The pregnancies of Arnaliaq (who just gave birth to the pup) and Samka have had everyone on pins and needles. For reasons that aren't fully understood, walruses have a nearly impossible time getting pregnant or giving birth in captivity. Around the world, there are just 30 walruses in zoos and aquariums, according to the Quebec facility—and nearly all of those animals, it's safe to say, were harvested in the wild.

Arnaliaq, an Atlantic walrus, was captured by Inuit hunters, as Motherboard previously reported, while Samka and Boris (the male who got both of them pregnant) are from Russia.

Why walrus reproduction is so dicey in captivity is still a mystery, but these animals' circadian rhythms seem to have something to do with it: day-night cycles are different at more southern latitudes—even in Quebec—than in their Arctic home, researchers have found. The last high-profile walrus pregnancy in North America was in 2011, at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom outside San Francisco, and followed several years of effort on the part of the aquarium team. (At one point, they introduced a fake walrus vagina to arouse the male.)

Unfortunately, that one didn't have a happy ending. Uquq laboured for 40 hours, and eventually delivered a stillborn pup.

The two female walruses, pregnant by a third named Boris. Image: Aquarium du Québec

In Quebec, Arnaliaq went into labour on Friday at 3 PM, according to the aquarium. Her pup saw daylight around 7:30 the next morning. "Everything occurred naturally and without human assistance," the aquarium said on its Facebook page (in French). A veterinarian and a few others were standing by, watching via a surveillance camera. Nobody knows the sex of the baby yet, because aquarium workers haven't gotten close enough to check. They'll be leaving Arnaliaq and her baby alone for a few weeks to get settled.

Arnie does seem to be nursing the pup, which is good news. When aquarium curator Jill Marvin previously spoke to Motherboard about these walrus pregnancies, she was looking at hiring new staff, in case the pup refused to nurse and had to bottlefeed.

Even so, not everyone was thrilled with the news—or at least, not with the photo that the aquarium released to announce it, which showed Arnaliaq and her newborn in a starkly lit concrete pen, which was unfortunately reminiscent of a jail cell.

"Very… sad. Their place isn't in an aquarium," one person commented on Facebook, in French.

The fact that walruses struggle to reproduce in captivity—that pregnancy and birth can represent a real danger to them in these settings—does seem like a good argument for not keeping them in zoos and aquariums. But at the same time, these animals are under increasing pressure from climate change, and studying them is crucially important. Arnaliaq's pregnancy and delivery have been a rare opportunity for scientists to do that.

Now everybody's watching Samka. If she manages to beat the odds too, we might soon see a second pup, joining the first, a few weeks from now.