Image: Guðmundur Már Karlsson

The Disappearance of the Icelandic Walrus

 In Nature, News

New research spearheaded by the Icelandic Museum of Natural History suggests that a special breed of walruses lived in and around Iceland millennia ago but became extinct around the year 1100, RÚV reports. The extinction has been suggested as being one of the earliest examples of overharvesting of marine life by humans.

According to Hilmar J. Malmquist, biologist and director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, the mysterious breed of walruses were highly coveted by early settlers for their meat, tusks and hide.

Walrus hide was reportedly used for clothing and rope that was used to secure the sails of the settlers’ boat fleet, furthermore walrus oil was used as ship insulation and to ward off crustaceans that would burrow into ship hulls, causing damage.

Walrus tusks were called the ivory of the North and were considered quite precious. Artists would often carve intricate patterns into the tusks. “Kings were gifted walrus tusks and heads, such was the importance of these artefacts,” Hilmir says.

Other factors, like rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, could also have contributed to the eventual demise of the Icelandic walrus. According to Hilmir, Iceland was relatively warm during their heyday and had little ice. Furthermore, extreme volcanic activity is thought to have characterised the locations where the walrus lived.

“The newest theories, put forth by scientists studying Icelandic settlers and natural history, suggest that an interest for Iceland’s abundant marine and bird life might have been a driving force behind early settlements here, rather than hardship and political disputes in Norway,” Hilmar says.

The disappearance of walruses in Iceland has long been a puzzle to scientists, but the new research, spearheaded by the Icelandic Museum of Natural History and conducted by Icelandic, Danish and Dutch researchers has shed new light on the matter. The scientists studied walrus bone samples found in western and south-western parts of Iceland. Their findings were recently reported in the scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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