for National Geographic News
Melting Arctic ice may be putting walrus pups in peril, researchers say.
A team of scientists working in the Arctic Ocean in 2004 says it encountered nine Pacific walrus pups struggling alone in the water far from shore.
Typically walrus pups live on ice close to shore and are inseparable from their mothers.
"I'm not a walrus expert, but we thought it was unusual,'' said Lee Cooper, a marine ecologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who led the team.
"The baby walruses would swim up to the boat. It was heartbreaking,'' he said.
Melting Arctic sea ice is the most likely explanation for the stranded pups, Cooper said. His team was in the region to study the intrusion of warm Bering Sea water into the Arctic Ocean.
"The sea ice has retreated, so it is only [now found] over the open ocean, where [the water] is about 12,000 feet [3,650 meters] deep. This is too deep for [a] walrus,'' Cooper said.
Walruses prefer shallow water, because they dive for food and can only reach depths of about 300 feet (90 meters).
Cooper believes the lone pups they saw had either followed their mothers far out into the ocean in search of solid ice or had floated out to sea on broken ice chunks that then melted.
Chadwick Jay, a walrus expert with the United States Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, agreed that melting ice was the likely reason for the lone pups.
Pups are sometimes separated from their mothers by storms or hunting, he said, but neither of those appeared to be the case with the pups Cooper's team observed.
"Given the fact that these were so far offshore, [those causes] may be not as likely,'' Jay said.
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