Are Walruses Smart? The Scientific Evidence

Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) are large, flippered marine mammals that live in the Arctic seas. They are known for their long tusks, whiskers, and ability to haul out onto ice or land in large groups.

But are walruses considered intelligent animals?

The answer is yes, walruses are smart. Recent studies have begun to shed light on the cognitive abilities of these tusked pinnipeds. From social mimicry to problem-solving, walruses have been observed displaying behaviors that suggest not only complex thinking but also emotional intelligence.

How Do We Define and Measure Animal Intelligence?

Defining and measuring animal intelligence is a complex process, as it encompasses a variety of cognitive functions and abilities. Criteria for assessing intelligence in animals include factors such as memory, learning, problem-solving, and communication.

A table outlining these areas could look like this:

Cognitive FunctionDescription
MemoryThe ability to retain and recall information.
LearningThe capacity to acquire new knowledge and adapt behavior.
Problem-SolvingThe capability to find solutions to novel or complex situations.
CommunicationThe use of signals or sounds to convey information.

Walruses have been the subject of some targeted cognitive testing, although not extensive research. Observational studies of walruses in captive and natural environments provide evidence that they exhibit intelligent behaviors such as social communication, tool use, and behavioral adaptability to challenges.

For example, captive walruses have demonstrated the ability to follow human vocal commands, suggesting auditory discrimination skills and understanding of the meaning behind sounds. Additionally, male walruses use their tusks for functions ranging from foraging to social signaling and competition, indicating advanced cognitive capabilities.

While rigorous quantification of walrus intelligence has been limited relative to extensively studied species like primates and dolphins, the observational evidence indicates a level of cognitive sophistication. Walruses live in complex social groups, produce diverse vocalizations for communication, and display behavioral plasticity in adapting to environmental conditions like the loss of sea ice habitat.

Their capacity for social learning and information transfer between individuals may also contribute to adaptive behaviors.

Overall, the behavioral ecology of walruses suggests strong cognitive skills that aid their survival in challenging Arctic environments. More comparative experimental research is still needed to establish the extent of their intellectual abilities fully.

Do Walruses Have Good Memories?

Walruses exhibit several behaviors that indicate they have good memories. These marine mammals, known for their distinctive tusks, appear to demonstrate the ability to remember social connections and previously learned behaviors, which are crucial for their survival in the wild.

Social Recognition:

Walruses have displayed the capacity to recognize individual members of their kind after long periods of separation. This ability to remember and identify other walruses is essential for maintaining social bonds within their herds.

  • Interaction Examples:
    • Reuniting with herd mates after seasonal migrations
    • Forming lasting bonds with offspring and allies

Learned Behaviors:

Trainers and researchers have noted that walruses can recall learned behaviors and commands even after years have passed without reinforcement. This retention over many years is indicative of a robust long-term memory, much like that observed in other intelligent marine mammals like dolphins and seals.

In addition, Wild walruses have shown multi-year retention of foraging strategies like using tools to access food.

Based on these observations, it can be inferred that walruses possess a level of memory competence that supports both their social structures and the ability to adapt to environmental challenges by recalling past experiences and learned behaviors.

The implications of such capabilities suggest a more complex cognitive process within these marine mammals than previously understood.

Can Walruses Solve Problems?

Yes, walruses have demonstrated a capacity for problem-solving, indicating a level of intelligence among marine mammals. They employ creative strategies to access food sources, overcoming environmental challenges.

For example, walruses have been observed using their tusks and flippers to dig out clams and other prey items buried in the seabed, showcasing their ability to use natural tools to reach nutrients.

In situations where food is not readily available, these animals adapt their foraging methods. Instances have been recorded where walruses will apply pressure on ice floes to create openings, allowing them to hunt for fish. This ability to manipulate their environment to access food demonstrates strategic thinking.

Moreover, the social structure of walrus pods facilitates cooperative problem-solving. They often work together, coordinating their actions for mutual benefit, be it during hunting or protecting their young from predators.

For instance, when one walrus is attacked, others will come to its aid, coordinating their defense—a testament to their social intelligence.

The cognitive skills of walruses extend to complex forms of communication and emotional intelligence. Their interactions within their social groups hint at an understanding beyond basic survival instincts, allowing them to establish and maintain strong social bonds.

Through such behaviors, walruses prove to be problem-solvers, employing both individual cunning and group cooperation to thrive in their challenging habitats.

How Much Do Walruses Understand and Communicate?

Walruses have demonstrated a significant level of comprehension, particularly in terms of social intelligence, which is essential for their survival in the arctic marine environment.

They understand a variety of gestural and other visual forms of communication within their groups. For instance, they might move their flippers in specific ways or adopt particular postures to convey messages to one another.

These marine mammals are also known to mimic each other’s behaviors, which can be a form of learning or communication. This mimicry can include copying the actions of others to demonstrate social hierarchy or to teach younger walruses skills like foraging.

In terms of vocalizations, walruses produce a range of sounds to express different needs and states. They create bell-like sounds underwater, unique in that they don’t stem from vocal cords but rather from air sacs near the pharynx.

These sounds serve several purposes from attracting mates during mating season to establishing dominance among males.

Calves, when disturbed, will emit a bellow, while adults engaged in dominance disputes might produce snorts, coughs, or roars. Such vocal behaviors underscore the complexity of their social dynamics and the importance of sound in their underwater communication.

Walruses also show an ability to mimic novel sounds, though not to the extent of Hoover the harbor seal. Their capacity for vocal learning is further seen in experiments where walruses successfully differentiated human speech sounds.

The significance of these distinct vocalizations is encapsulated in the detailed research and observations made by marine biologists, accentuating the cognitive abilities of walruses in their natural habitat.

How Does Walrus Cognition Compare to Other Animals?

When assessing the intelligence of walruses, they exhibit certain abilities indicative of complex cognition, but these capabilities tend not to reach the levels observed in known highly intelligent animals such as chimpanzees or dolphins.

Walruses are members of the Pinniped order, alongside seals and sea lions, which have demonstrated considerable learning and problem-solving skills in various studies.

Due to the overlap in their habitats and evolutionary paths, this similarity is expected. Walruses show evidence of social learning, as they are known to share food, assist each other in times of danger, and care for the young of others, suggesting a level of social intelligence.

However, while seals have been the subject of extensive study which confirms their aptitude for intricate tasks, less is known about the full extent of walrus intelligence.

Controlled testing specific to the walrus species is limited, leaving comparisons between their cognitive abilities and those of other animals more anecdotal than empirical.

So, while some parallels can be drawn between walruses and other Pinnipeds — like seals — regarding their learning and problem-solving capabilities, additional research is required to place walrus intelligence in a definitive context within the animal kingdom.

What is Walrus Social Behavior Like?

Walruses are known for their highly social behavior. They are often found in large, gregarious groups on land or ice floes.

Within these communities, they engage in a variety of communal activities and display complex social structures.

Vocalizations are a crucial component of their interactions, serving as a means for them to communicate with each other. The sounds they produce range from bell-like whistles to deep, powerful grunts, which help maintain social bonds and warn against potential threats.

Body language also plays an important role in walrus socialization. They are observed using their tusks in dominance displays, asserting their position within the hierarchy.

Despite their potential to be aggressive, walruses frequently exhibit gentler bonding behaviors indicative of affection such as hugging and holding flippers with one another.

The walrus’s demeanor can be characterized as curious and playful. These intelligent marine mammals are often seen engaging in what appears to be play, interacting with objects in their environment, or each other, in a mischievous manner. This playful nature is more pronounced during juvenile stages, but older individuals can also exhibit such behaviors.

It’s important to note, however, that walruses can display quite aggressive tendencies when it comes to feeding and mating displays. Such behaviors underscore the competitive nature that arises in situations where resources are contested.

Individual personality traits within walrus populations show significant variation, suggesting that similar to humans, each walrus possesses a distinct character with its own set of behavioral tendencies.


  1. Social vocal communication in captive Pacific walruses Odobenus rosmarus divergens. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1616504710001266
  2. Mother-calf vocal communication in Atlantic walrus: a first field experimental study. PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19960216.
  3. A new bio-inspired metaheuristic algorithm for solving optimization problems based on walruses behavior. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-023-35863-5
  4. Preliminary Study of Discrimination of Human Vocal Commands in Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). eScholarship. https://escholarship.org/content/qt7gq7d1hw/qt7gq7d1hw_noSplash_a7d288f8f3ab12cccae2f48425c8de54.pdf

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