Scientist finds walruses fun and a big challenge

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- Biologist Chad Jay's idea of fun is crawling on his hands and knees among thousands of belching walruses to get close to his research subjects.

``I guess part of the excitement is the challenge,'' Jay says.

Jay, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Anchorage, knows all about challenges. He's been studying the Pacific walrus since 1995 and is preparing for another trip this summer to Cape Peirce on Bristol Bay, where walruses pack themselves in like fans at a rock concert.

Jay, 42, is the only scientist doing in-depth research on the Pacific walrus. It's no wonder. They're difficult.

During a 1997 trip to a walrus haulout, he spotted one of his research subjects in the middle of thousands of walruses gathered on a beach. The 3,000-pound male still had the data recorder and transmitters Jay had attached to his 20-inch tusks months earlier. Jay wanted to get the equipment back.

He waited for the walrus to move to the edge of the herd, making it easier to dart him with a tranquilizer gun. But the walrus didn't budge. Fearing the animal would slip back into the ocean, Jay and a fellow scientist decided to make their move. They began crawling toward him, down a narrow, walrus-free path. They kept down so the walruses wouldn't see them and become nervous.

``If the herd had closed in around us, we'd have had it,'' Jay said.

As it turned out, everything went smoothly.

``We darted the animal. He went down nicely.''

Pacific walruses summer in the Bering Sea along Alaska's west coast and winter as far north as the Chukchi Sea off the Russian coast. Females spend most of their time on ice floes caring for their young.

Walruses live on both land and water, making them difficult to count. A plane conducting an aerial survey can fly over a haulout and find thousands of walruses. A few hours later, there may be just a few hundred left on the beach, Jay said.

Getting close to his research subjects is a little risky. While walruses are not aggressive, push one and he might charge back. They lumber long distances but can move 10 feet in a flash.

``You have to be careful because they will turn and lunge at you,'' Jay said. ``Some can snarl when they get mad just like a dog does.''

While the walrus population appears stable, no one knows for sure. An aerial survey conducted in 1985 estimated the population at 220,000. A later survey was ruined by unusual ice conditions, Jay said.

He's trying to provide a basis for a more accurate count. Scientists will need to know how much time walruses spend in the water, how much time is spent underwater and how many walruses are using Russian haulouts.

Getting an accurate count is made tougher because Russia has twice as many haulouts as Alaska, but no money to conduct research.

``They do have scientists that are very capable of doing the work but they are faced with no funds,'' Jay said.

Jay has attached satellite transmitters to 48 walruses. One type of transmitter tracks the animals over their migration routes. The other can locate one animal among thousands. A data recorder tracks the animals in the water, recording how often they feed and dive.

Transmitters have been knocked off, batteries haven't lasted as long as expected, data recorders proved fragile. In his five-year study, Jay has tracked six walruses long enough to get a better understanding of their migration habits.

Carl Kava, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission in Nome, said more needs to be learned about walruses. About 60 percent of the Eskimo diet in walrus-hunting villages comes from walrus. Eskimos also use the hide to make rope and to cover their boats to hunt bowhead whales. They make extra money by carving walrus ivory to sell. They use the membrane of the walrus' stomach to make drums for Eskimo dancing.

``We really rely on the walrus,'' Kava said. ``It is a big part of our tradition. Without it, I think we would be somewhat lost.''

For the first time this year, Jay and a group of scientists will go to the Chukchi Sea to study female walruses hauled out on the ice. In August, they will return to Cape Peirce in Southwest Alaska.

Sedating the animals to attach and retrieve transmitters has been a big problem. Jay said 14 percent of the animals he's anesthetized have died. In an effort to figure out why, Jay and two animal anesthesiologists and a wildlife veterinarian darted seven walruses last summer. They brought with them two types of manual respirators to make sure the animals kept breathing.

``We were able to keep them ventilated and two died out of seven. I think we were all surprised we lost two animals,'' Jay said.

Animal anesthesiologist David Brunson is accompanying Jay again this summer.

Brunson said walruses overheat when anesthetized. He's considering using sensors to find the cool walruses on the beach. Dousing them with seawater might help, he said. He also suspects walruses need a drug to keep their blood pressure from bottoming out. That may require an intravenous setup on the beach.

``The walrus is the most difficult animal I have ever anesthetized,'' Brunson said.

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