Vanished walrus population linked to Viking trade

Walruses existed for thousands of years on Iceland before their unique population disappeared. ©Polar cruises

The disappearance of the walrus from the shores of Iceland has long been a scientific puzzle. Walruses existed on the island for thousands of years, then disappeared. Using DNA analyses and carbon dating of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) remains in museum collections, researchers believe they have an answer. In what they call one of the earliest examples of commercial overexploitation of marine life, they believe walrus hunting and ivory trade by Norse settlers 1,100 years ago drove this unique population to extinction. A coveted luxury good, walrus ivory was traded across medieval Europe, with ornamented tusks documented as far as the Middle East and India.

“We show that already in the Viking Age, more than 1,000 years ago, commercial hunting, economic incentives and trade networks were of sufficient scale and intensity to result in significant, irreversible ecological impacts on the marine environment,” says lead author Xénia Keighley.

Read the study in Molecular Biology and Evolution, and watch the video below.