How to Speak Walrus

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 06.01.09
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Leah Combs, a trainer, and Colleen Reichmuth, a marine biologist, introduce us to three very charismatic walruses who are teaching scientists much about walrus vocalizations and communications. In this audio slide show, meet Siku, Uquq, and Sivuqaq and hear the remarkable range of sounds they produce both above and below water.

Launch Interactive

Two experts—and two walruses—demonstrate in this audio slide show.


How to Speak Walrus

Posted June 1, 2009

LEAH COOMBS: My name is Leah Coombs. I am a marine mammal supervisor at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. I oversee the walruses, and I have worked at Six Flags for 17 years.

Our walruses are from Alaska. They were actually abandoned at about two to three weeks of age, so they came here then. And they were hand-raised and bottle-fed, and now they're 15 years old, and they have grown very well into big, adult walruses.

Here is Sivuqaq. He is our only male. And right now he weighs about 2,300 pounds. Sivuqaq is a very good walrus. He's very laid back and very easy to work with.

Here is Uquq. She is one of the two females that we have. She's at about 1,600 pounds right now. She's a little lazier than the rest, so if she can get away with not doing much, that's what she'll do.

Siku is our second female. She's also around 1,600 pounds, and Siku is completely different than Uquq. Siku is our A-plus student. She's extremely motivated. She's always very eager to work, and she's very consistent.

Sivuqaq makes a variety of sounds:

He makes a very loud [ohhhhhhhh], as you're seeing now.

He has a raspberry, just like we would do a raspberry. [Raspberry]

He has a talk sound, where he actually moves his jaw up and down and kind of goes... [Talk]

He also has a sniffle, which is through his nose. [Sniffle]

He has a knocking sound. [Knocking]

He can whistle. [Whistle]

He also has a growl. [Growl]

They actually learn very well and very quickly, so it's a lot of fun to train them, and just see what new sounds we can come up with and see if anybody's heard those sounds out in the wild.

COLLEEN REICHMUTH: Hi, my name is Colleen Reichmuth. And I'm a research biologist at the Long Marine Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. I have been working on and off with the walruses at Six Flags for about 14 years or so.

When I go up to the park we have a little greeting ritual. One of the ways they love to say hello is to have you place your hands and mouth over their nose and blow really hard. They sort of suck the air right out of your lungs. They really want to experience you. So they – It's one of the ways, I believe, that they recognize different people in their environment.

Walruses are really unique among marine mammals. They really are the last living species in a much larger phylogenetic group of animals. There are no other animals like walruses, and we still know so very, very little about them and about their behavior.

Walruses are not easy animals to study in the wild, so by working closely with a few individual animals in captivity, we can learn quite a bit about the capability of the species. In the case of our research, how these animals produce sound above and below the surface and how they use sounds to interact and communicate vocally.

Walruses do use more structures for producing sounds than any other pinniped and maybe any other mammal. Many walruses, including all the males, have these large pharyngeal sacs that are like almost an extra set of lungs that they can use for producing sound. They can use the larynx, of course, and they have a really mobile muzzle. And so they can produce a variety of really amazing sounds, including, you know [burp] and [knock] and [ohhhh].

We were really interested in learning about whether these animals could learn to produce novel sounds on request, and so we asked them to be vocally innovative. And we found that they could produce a really wide range of sounds and be sort of inventive about how the sounds were structured and put together.

Sivuqaq and Siku really did catch onto what we were looking for. It was a lot of, "How 'bout this? How 'bout this?" And if one thing didn't work, they would immediately shift into a different sound type, or they would put two new things together.

Sometimes we do see some mild frustration. So what does a frustrated walrus do? Pretty much anything he wants, you know? They can leave the enclosure, jump in the pool. They may pace around. The frustration sounds we got were very emotionally expressive. You know, they sounded like, "Huh!" or a bark or, like, "Hey!" or a big, you know, moan, or kind of a loud angry belching sound—a lot of what you might call emotional protest sounds. And we used that to our advantage. You know, we reinforced those sounds, and then we found the animals made a lot of very different sounds after that.

Then we moved the whole task underwater. And, of course, underwater, sound travels quite differently, and the acoustic structures that you might use in air don't work as well underwater. It's not very easy to whistle underwater, for example. We asked the animals to make some creative sounds for us in this new environment, and that was really great. We got a lot of really cool sounds we hadn't heard before. And we also got a lot of interesting combinations of existing sounds that these animals put together in new ways.

Sivuqaq has been very inventive. A new sound that he started to produce while singing was clapping his fore-flippers together, really loud, underwater, in time to his song. And that's been really interesting to see him sort of come up with these kinds of strategies for making his own song more interesting or more variable.

On their 15th birthday, their best friend Leah made them all these big ice blocks that were full of clams and favorite treats. And she added a bit of food coloring, so they each got one in a different color. It was really fun to see these animals sucking them against their lips and sort of carrying them around just with their mouth.

It's just wonderful to spend time with these animals. We all have a lot of fun when we're doing this kind of work together.



Produced by
Peter Tyson and Rachel VanCott

Images: (in order of appearance)

(1-3, 6, 8-15, 17-24, 26-28, 31, 33, 35-37, 39-41)
© Courtesy Nancy Cha
(4, 16, 29, 30, 32, 38)
© Courtesy Colleen Reichmuth
(5, 7, 25, 34, 42)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

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