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Vikings Likely Hunted Ancient Walruses in Iceland to Extinction, New Research Finds

Animals
Prehistoric and historic walrus skulls, tusks and bone fragments often wash ashore on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland. Hilmar J. Malmquist

A unique subpopulation of ancient walrus in Iceland was likely hunted to extinction by Vikings shortly after arrival to the region, according to new research.


Two subspecies of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) occur throughout the Arctic in both Pacific and Atlantic waters, the latter having a population of around 30,000 individuals throughout northeastern Canada, Greenland and parts of Russia. However, walruses are no longer found in Iceland despite ancient skeletal remains and centuries-old written documents indicating they once thrived in the region.

An international team of scientists analyzed the prehistoric remains of walruses found within the region by extracting DNA and compared this information against modern walruses. They further conducted radiocarbon dating in coordination with a review of studies related to walruses in the region. They found that walruses had inhabited the area for thousands of years, but disappeared mid-14th century just five centuries after the Norse settlers arrived, reports New Scientist.

"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," said Morten Tange Olsen, assistant professor at Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Writing in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, the researchers note that ivory from walrus tusk was a luxury good in high demand and was traded across the Viking Age and Medieval Europe as far as the Middle East and India. A 2018 study reported by National Geographic similarly found that Norse hunters had indeed established a steady ivory trade, but the source of the tusks and ivory remained a mystery.

The work highlights the impact of human arrival in "pristine" environments and provides one of the earliest examples of trade and human exploitation resulting in the extinction of a marine resource.

"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," explained lead author Xénia Keighley. "The reliance on marine mammal resources for both consumption and trade has so far been underestimated."

The lineage of Icelandic walruses also proved to be a genetically unique species that is distinct from historic and contemporary walrus populations now found in the North Atlantic. The subspecies had existed in western Iceland for about 7,500 years, which the authors say suggests a "stable, long-term presence" up until 1213 to 1330 AD.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.