Home / News / Icelandic Walruses May Have Been Early Victims of Human-Driven Extinction

Icelandic Walruses May Have Been Early Victims of Human-Driven Extinction

aerial of a bunch of walruses

The timing of the walrus’s disappearance suggests the Vikings, and their ivory commerce, had one thing to do with it. 

There aren’t any walruses in Iceland, however, at one time, there have been a whole bunch. The timing of the walruses’ disappearance means that the inhabitants’s loss could also be one of many earliest identified examples of people driving a marine species to native extinction.

The Ghost of Walruses Previous

Walruses was a significant function of life in Iceland. A number of settlements and landmarks alongside Iceland’s coast nonetheless bear names that consult with walruses, and some of the medieval Sagas (the tales of the island’s early settler households) even point out them. The Saga of Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson, written down someday within the late 1100s, tells the story of a chieftain who killed a walrus and introduced its tusks and cranium to Canterbury Cathedral in England. However the walruses themselves have been decreased to just a few historical bones and tusks.


This story initially appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted supply for expertise information, tech coverage evaluation, evaluations, and extra. Ars is owned by WIRED’s guardian firm, Condé Nast.

Did the walruses disappear earlier than or after the Norse arrived? In different phrases, did the Norse kill off Iceland’s walruses, or did the inhabitants die of pure causes? As a result of Iceland has no residing walruses immediately, historians have debated whether or not the place names referred to locations the place walruses have been residing when individuals arrived or simply locations the place settlers discovered the skulls and tusks of long-dead animals. The walrus tusks that Hrafin Sveinbjarnarson delivered to England may have been a part of a thriving Icelandic walrus inhabitants, nevertheless it may even have been solely a misplaced wanderer from extra distant shores.

To study extra about Iceland’s pinniped previous, evolutionary genomicist Xenia Keighley of the College of Copenhagen and her colleagues radiocarbon dated and sequenced DNA from 34 samples of bones and tusks from walruses within the Icelandic Museum of Pure Historical past. The DNA research additionally confirmed that Iceland’s long-lost walruses have been a definite department of the walrus household. The oldest walrus stays within the museum, courting to 5502-5332 BCE, have been associated to the ancestors of immediately’s Atlantic walrus inhabitants. Newer samples, although, belonged to a separate mitochondrial department of the walrus household tree, genetically distinct from each group that’s identified within the North Atlantic—together with the older Icelandic walruses.

“I’d suspect that the latest clade characterize a colonization occasion that changed the lineage represented by the previous pattern, somewhat than the previous pattern being a direct ancestor to the newer clade,” co-author Morten Olsen, additionally an evolutionary genomicist on the College of Copenhagen, instructed Ars.

Blame the Vikings

So what occurred to Iceland’s walruses? As all the time, the reply is advanced, however a lot of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Norse. Settlers arrived in Iceland and started searching walrus for the European ivory commerce at a time when Iceland’s walrus inhabitants was already scuffling with a shifting atmosphere and a collection of volcanic eruptions.

Walrus ivory was a significant commerce commodity in markets throughout Europe for a lot of the early Center Ages, and the Norse hunted walrus round most of their territory within the North Atlantic. In keeping with a 2018 examine of DNA from walrus skulls and tusks present in Western European archaeological websites, most of Europe’s provide of walrus ivory got here from a walrus clade (a bunch of associated animals with a standard ancestor) residing in Greenland, which was residence to tens of 1000’s of walruses. Iceland’s a lot smaller walrus inhabitants would have been a drop within the bucket by comparability, however the ivory commerce would nonetheless have put strain on Iceland’s small inhabitants.

When the primary Norse hunters reached them, Icelandic walruses have been already dealing with challenges from the Medieval Heat Interval (700 to 1100 CE). Just a few centuries of comparatively heat local weather within the North Atlantic have been useful to human explorers, however not so nice for walruses, which depend on sea ice as a spot to haul themselves out of the water. And on the identical time, volcanoes erupted a number of occasions close to among the walruses’ key haul-out websites on land. It’s no marvel the walruses couldn’t survive all of that and Vikings.

Some proof suggests {that a} Roman fishing trade could have worn out gray whales within the North Atlantic a couple of hundred years earlier than the Viking Age, however in any other case the Norse could have been the primary to wipe out an entire inhabitants of animals for revenue.

Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2019. DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msz196 (About DOIs).

This story initially appeared on Ars Technica.

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About Kiona N. Smith, Ars Technica

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