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Are walruses right-handed?

Walruses are 'right-flippered', according to research published this week in BMC Ecology. The first study of walrus feeding behaviour in the wild showed that the animals preferentially use their right flipper to remove sediment from buried food. This is the first time that any aquatic animal has been shown to prefer using one flipper to the other when foraging.

Direct observations of the underwater behaviour of free-living marine mammals are rare, especially if the animals are dangerous, like the walrus. This means that our understanding of these creatures is remarkably limited.

The scuba-diving researchers from Denmark, Greenland and Sweden went to Northeast Greenland to film male Atlantic walruses while they ate. Walruses eat invertebrate animals that live on the seabed. They are particularly fond of clams. Walruses suck out the soft part of the clam, and discard the empty shells. As clams can be buried up to 40 cm deep, the walruses must remove sediment to find them.

The videos showed that the walruses had four different types of foraging behaviour. They removed sediment by beating their right flipper, beating their left flipper, or using a water-jet from their mouth. They also rooted through the sediment using their muzzle "like pigs in the ground."

The research team used the videos to assess how often the walruses used each foraging technique. They found that 66% of the time they used the right flipper, 4% of the time the left flipper, 29% of the time the muzzle and only 1% of the time the water-jet. When considering only flipper use, the walruses used their right flipper 89% of the time.

Right-handed people tend to have longer bones in their right arm than their left, probably because they use it more often. To see if the same was true for walruses, the researchers compared the lengths of the right and left scapula, humerus and ulna from 23 walrus skeletons. They found that walruses did indeed have long
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Contact: Gemma Bradley
press@biomedcentral.com
44-20-7323-0323
BioMed Central
22-Oct-2003


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