UAF Scientists Land Grant For Most Extensive Pacific Walrus Research To Date

Nicole Misarti, Lara Horstmann and Link Olsen will study this and other walrus specimens housed at UAF's Museum of the North over the next four years. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC - Fairbanks.
Nicole Misarti, Lara Horstmann and Link Olsen will study this and other walrus specimens housed at UAF’s Museum of the North over the next four years. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will spend the next four years studying various aspects of Pacific walruses in the far north. The $1.7 million project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Scientists will use thousands of samples housed at the University’s Museum of the North, as well as stories and interviews preserved in the University’s Rasmuson Library to answer questions about everything from the marine mammal genetics to changes in habitat over the last 2,000 years.

In a lab in the basement of the Museum of the North, three scientists brainstorm about how best to make use of a set of walrus teeth.

“These teeth are full of DNA,” Link Olson said. He’s the curator of Mammals at the Museum.

He’s holding a bag of golf ball-sized yellow teeth. Some of them are marked with rust-colored lines.

“That’s blood. That’s residual tissue that can be used to get DNA from even if we aren’t able to drill into the teeth,” Olson explained. “So, this otherwise seemingly worthless material is actually a gold mine of information and what we’re going to be getting out of it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Olson is part of a larger research team that was recently awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

For his part, he uses DNA sequencing technology to piece together the genetic story of the Pacific Walrus over the last 2,000 years.

“Foremost in my mind is whether or not these are able to adapt evolutionarily to some of the changes they are facing,” he said.

Walrus habitat has declined in recent years, due to changes in sea ice extent. That’s why lead researcher Nicole Misarti says the project is timely.

“There are a lot of villages on the northwestern coast and northern coast that rely on walrus for food all winter long, they rely on the ivory to bring in money from carvings and artwork,” Misarti said. “So it’s important as far as sustainability of villages is concerned and the other level of it is they’re a good species to look at as the Arctic changes.”

The team will look at everything from walrus habitat to genetics and they’ll use thousands of available samples to answer their questions. They will also use archived interviews to learn more about traditional knowledge of the Pacific Walrus.

It’s the largest study of its kind.

Misarti says it also spans a time period longer than any other marine mammal study.

“We’re hitting other time periods that were also much warmer than things have been for the last few hundred years, and so if sea ice was receding then, we might see some changes as well and it probably did receded then because the medieval warm was a fairly warm period,” she said.

Some of the changes scientists hope to discover could be hidden in walrus bones.

Lara Horstmann is an Assistant Professor at UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She plans to extract hormones from ancient and modern bone specimens.

“Cortisol is a stress response hormone,” Horstmann explained. “So, this is something we could get at to look at stress response in the past and today and see if that has changed. So, are animals today more stressed than they were 2,000 years ago?”

Horstmann’s work involves methods that have never before been used in marine mammal research.

“Well, it’s fairly new in the forensic world,” she said, “So people have tried it, but at this point in time, we don’t even know if it’s going to work, so this is highly experimental.”

If it does work, she says the data will provide a wealth of information.

A number of Alaska Native Organizations will participate in the study.

The funding will also pay for two student research positions at UAF and four Alaska Native high school students will take part in 2016.

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