Vancouver, B.C. – Beginning this week, there are two new reasons to visit Vancouver Aquarium®, an Ocean Wise® initiative, as visitors are introduced to young walruses Lakina and Balzak at the new Research Outpost exhibit. For Vancouver locals and tourists alike, this will be the first time in the Aquarium’s 62-year history and, perhaps the first time ever, that they will get up close and connect with these charismatic Arctic animals while learning about the unique characteristics and the challenges faced by their counterparts in our rapidly changing North.
In another first, Vancouver Aquarium has opened up its longstanding research centre for visitors; the Research Outpost provides a window on the once behind-the-scenes area and gives visitors the opportunity to observe groundbreaking marine mammal studies. Lakina and Balzak will be seen at Research Outpost at select times throughout the day. Visitors will watch the walruses interacting with the marine mammal trainers while practicing husbandry behaviours and training to support research studies. They will hear the wide variety of vocalizations that walruses are able to make like ‘roar’ and ‘sputter’ and will see Lakina and Balzak enjoying play sessions with toys, ice, bubbles, and more as they strengthen relationships with their trainers. Visitors will also see other pinnipeds – Steller sea lions and Northern fur seals – interact with the marine mammal trainers during husbandry, research, and enrichment sessions throughout the day. The Research Outpost is an extension of the west coast fishing village-themed Steller’s Bay which opened on July 1, 2017.
Lakina and Balzak – the first walruses to be born in human care in Canada – arrived weeks apart in May 2016 at Aquarium du Québec and quickly won the hearts of staff and visitors. The half-siblings moved to Vancouver Aquarium late last year and, with animal care teams from both aquariums working in close collaboration, quickly settled in to their new home.
“From the moment they arrived last December, we have been charmed by Lakina and Balzak. These two-year-old walruses are curious and playful, and every interaction with them is unique. Their response to our ever-changing training and enrichment sessions ranges from energetic enthusiasm to attentive exploration and everything in between.” says Troy Neale, assistant curator of marine mammals at Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise initiative. “During the past six months, our team has been working behind the scenes to develop strong, trusting relationships with these animals, which is crucial for their care, and watching them grow and learn. In turn, we’ve learned so much from them. And now, with the opening of Research Outpost, we have this wonderful opportunity to share our experiences and learnings with our guests in real time.”
One thing the trainers have reaffirmed from their time working with the walruses is that they are fascinating creatures. Here are only a few reasons why:
- Female walrus Lakina and male walrus Balzak weigh approximately 300 kgs and 400 kgs, respectively. They are growing at a rapid rate, averaging a 15 kg gain per month. Exhibiting sexual dimorphism, fully grown female walruses weigh 1,250 to 1,700 kgs while males weigh 2,700 to 3,700 kgs. Thick skin and a blubber layer keep these animals warm in icy waters.
- Ivory tusks or modified canine teeth help these strong yet rotund and relatively short-flippered animals haul out on ice floes or rocky shores. For males, tusks also help establish social dominance. Tusks begin growing in the first three to four months of a walrus’ life and can continue to grow for approximately 15 years, reaching lengths of 80 cm for females and 100 cm for males.
- Resembling a rather impressive moustache, walruses have dense whiskers called vibrissae. There are 400 to 700 vibrissae organized in 13 to 15 rows across the mystacial pad and each is connected to a muscle as well as a nerve and blood supply. Capable of lifting, separating, and scrunching the mystacial pad, a walrus’ sensitive whiskers are a perfect tool for hunting sessile food like clams, mussels, and sea cucumbers in the dark waters near the ocean floor.
- Walruses have incredible vocal capabilities and are able to make a variety of sounds including a grunt, roar, whistle, and even a ringing bell.
Like all Arctic mammals, walruses are facing increasing threats due to rapid climate change and the impacts are widespread. Still, very little is known about these iconic animals due to limited research. Vancouver Aquarium has plans to help change that and, building on 25 years of pinniped research, will soon be gathering information about this unique species. Led by Dr. David Rosen, Ocean Wise collections research coordinator and University of British Columbia research associate, the Aquarium’s marine mammal trainers are working with Lakina and Balzak and building learned behaviours that will facilitate baseline studies on walrus size and growth, metabolic rate, and immune function. Like with Steller sea lions and Northern fur seals, these learnings will contribute to the global knowledge base as scientists work to provide research-based solutions to protect wild populations.
Vancouver Aquarium tickets are available at www.vanaqua.org/walrus and support Ocean Wise’s ongoing ocean research, education, and conservation initiatives.
Ocean Wise is a not-for-profit organization whose vision is a world in which oceans are healthy and flourishing. www.ocean.org
Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise initiative, is one of the world’s leading accredited aquariums, dedicated to the conservation of aquatic life. www.vanaqua.org
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