A small crowd gathered in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, when a walrus was spotted in the town harbour yesterday evening, RÚV reports. There are no walruses living on Iceland’s shores, but one is spotted on average every ten years or so, likely arriving from Greenland. The walrus spotted in Höfn swam out to sea last night and caused no damage to residents or the harbour.
Though Iceland does not have a local walrus population today, there is evidence it used to. In 2019, DNA analyses and radiocarbon dating of walrus tusks found in Iceland revealed that they belonged to a previously unknown subspecies of the Atlantic walrus. This confirmed Iceland was “home to a distinct, localised subspecies” of walrus, according to Dr. Hilmar Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.
The subspecies lived on Iceland’s shores from at least 7000 BC but disappeared shortly after the arrival of settlers. The total population seems to have been relatively small (around 5,000 animals) and thus vulnerable to habitat changes. Iceland’s climate today is too warm to support a walrus population. The animals prefer colder temperatures as well as abundant sea ice, especially during breeding season.
While Hilmar says a warming climate and volcanic eruptions may have been factors in the animals’ disappearance, the most likely explanation is that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans. Walrus ivory was once traded as a luxury product in Europe and Vikings also used walrus hides to make rope and walrus blubber to make oil, used for waterproofing ship hulls. Some sources suggest Vikings also ate walrus meat.