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The Icelandic walrus began extinct at the arrival of the Norse. Source: Calvin / Adobe Stock.

Norse Settlers Wiped Out Icelandic Walrus 1100 Years Ago

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An international collaboration of scientists in Iceland, Denmark, and the Netherlands has for the first time used ancient DNA analyses and C14-dating to demonstrate the past existence of a unique population of Icelandic walrus that went extinct shortly after a Norse settlement was established some 1100 years ago. Walrus hunting and ivory trade was probably the principal cause of extinction, being one of the earliest examples of commercially driven overexploitation of marine resources.

The presence of walruses in Iceland in the past and their apparent disappearance as early as in the Settlement and Commonwealth periods (870-1262 AD) has long puzzled the scientific world. In a study recently published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution scientists from Denmark, Iceland, and Holland have addressed the question by analyzing ancient and contemporary DNA along with carbon-14 dating of walrus remains, supplemented with detailed studies of finding localities of the remains, place names and references to walrus hunting in the Icelandic medieval literature, including the Icelandic Sagas .

The Norsemen landing in Iceland in 872 AD brought about the extinction of the Icelandic walrus. (Guillaumelandry / Public Domain)

The Norsemen landing in Iceland in 872 AD brought about the extinction of the Icelandic walrus. (Guillaumelandry / Public Domain )

"Natural History Museum collections provide a remarkable window into the past, which with modern day technology allows us to explore the past effects of human activities and environmental change on species and ecosystems. This can be further put into context by studying the Icelandic medieval literature, historic place names, and zooarchaeological sites," explains leader of the research Hilmar J. Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, Reykjavik, Iceland.

A Long-Term Population of Genetically Unique Walruses in Iceland

The scientists used carbon-14 dating of walrus remains found in Iceland to reveal that walruses inhabited Iceland for thousands of years but disappeared shortly after the country's settlement around 870 AD by the Norse. DNA was extracted from natural finding sites and archaeological excavations of walrus samples, and compared to data from contemporary walruses, documenting that the Icelandic walrus constituted a genetically unique lineage, distinct from all other historic and contemporary walrus populations in the North Atlantic.

"Our study provides one of the earliest examples of local extinction of a marine species following human arrival and overexploitation. It further adds to the debate about the role of humans in the extinction of megafauna, supporting a growing body of evidence that wherever humans turn up, the local environment and ecosystem suffers," says Morten Tange Olsen, Assistant Professor at Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Walrus Ivory Was in High Demand

Walrus ivory was a luxury good in high demand and widely traded during the Viking Age in medieval Europe. Beautifully ornamented tusks have been also documented as far away as the Middle East and India. Most examples of trade and human overexploitation and extinction of local marine resources are of much a more recent date, such as overfishing, and commercial whaling for the past three centuries or so.

Ivory luxury goods contributed to the extinction of the Icelandic walrus. (Medium69 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ivory luxury goods contributed to the extinction of the Icelandic walrus. (Medium69 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

"We show that already in the Viking Age , more than 1000 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, potentially exacerbated by a warming climate and volcanism. The reliance on marine mammal resources for both consumption and trade has so far been underestimated," says lead author Xénia Keighley, who is completing a PhD at the GLOBE Institute in Copenhagen and the Arctic Centre in Groningen.

Facts About the Walrus

The walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) grows up to 9.8 feet (3 meters) in length and lives up to 40 years. The male weighs up to 3307 pounds (1500 kilograms), while the female is slightly smaller. Both males and females have tusks.

Walrus cows and yearlings on ice. (Roy17 / Public Domain)

Walrus cows and yearlings on ice. (Roy17 / Public Domain )

The walrus lives throughout the Arctic and they are divided in two subspecies, the Atlantic and Pacific walrus. The Atlantic walrus, to which the Icelandic belonged, has a population of approximately 30,000 and resides in northeastern Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and northwestern Russia.

The Norse of the Viking Age were the first people to settle permanently in Iceland around 870 AD, and later colonized Greenland, where they also hunted walruses for food and traded with walrus tusks and hides.

Vikings hunted the Icelandic walrus to extinction. (Steve Lew / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Vikings hunted the Icelandic walrus to extinction. (Steve Lew / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Top image: The Icelandic walrus began extinct at the arrival of the Norse. Source: Calvin / Adobe Stock.

The article originally titled, ‘ Extinction of Icelandic walrus coincides with Norse settlement’ was first published on Science Daily.

Source: University of Copenhagen The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. " Extinction of Icelandic walrus coincides with Norse settlement ." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 September 2019.

References

Keighley, X., Pálsson, S., Einarsson, B., Petersen, A., Fernández-Coll, M., Jordan, P., Olsen, M., and Malmquist, H. 2019. Disappearance of Icelandic walruses coincided with Norse settlement . Molecular Biology and Evolution, [Online] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/mbe/advance-article/doi/10.1093/molbev/msz196/5564176

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