How a peaceful walrooster poult turns into a killer
Walroosters are known for their unusual sociability and co-operation in defense against predators such as polar draks and arctic seawolves. Their hooked beak, supported by strong jaw muscles, is a truly formidable weapon, but they seem to almost never turn it against each other, while intaspecific fights seem to be an almost daily occurrance in the penguin colonies of the Antarctic. This peaceful and almost altruistically helpful nature of the walrooster has been attributed to the helplessness of these giant seaguins on land and the harshness of the environment they must survive in. Contrasting to this, few observed cases of infanticide, followed by cannibalism, have seemed all the more baffling, and remained an enigma until scientists began a long period observation on the growth and development of walrooster poults.
Like in many other seaguin species, the poult remains on land, protected by the colony, until its grey, fluffy hatchling down changes to the black and white waterpoof feathers of a subadult. Until this point the mother has always climbed on land to regurgitate food for the poult, but now it refuses to leave the water, instead calling the poult to come to it. To receive any food, the young walrooster must first brave the chilly water which will be it's home for much of it's remaining lifetime. After the poult becomes accustomed to swimming and diving after its mother, the next lesson in life follows: how to find and deal with food. The mother will patiently show its young how to deal with different shellfish from removing them from the ocean floor to manipulating them with their beak and teeth to extract the meat from the shells.
During the first week or so, the poult rarely attempts to open any shellfish on its own, and is being fed, but gradually the mother begins to feed its young less and less, as if to motivate it to find its own food. However, the teaching period last weeks to a month, and it's only after this time that the mother refuses to feed its poult and drives it away if it tries to beg for food. After this the nearly grown up poults gongregate in youth groups, where they appear to learn more from each other. While there clearly is an instinctive part to the walrooster's handling of its food, these instincts have to be awakened and fortified for quite some time before the animal becomes an expert at dealing with all sorts of clams, mussels, scallops and snails it will feed on for its adult life.
It was this part of the walrooster's life that scientists wanted to study, and inadvertently caused the death of one female just before it had started teaching its poult the secrets of feeding. The scientists decided to keep an eye on the chick although they suspected that it would simply starve and die alone on its home beach. Instead, the poult began to explore the sea without its mother's guidance, perhaps driven by growing hunger. Although it had spent a few days learning to swim and to avoid most obvious dangers, it seemed to have no idea of what it was supposed to eat and how. It did approach other females but only to beg for food, and was always driven off. It seemed to have no interest in the feeding lessons the mothers were giving to their chicks. Apparently it would have accepted only its mother's example, and without it, it didn't even associate shellfish with food.
However, at the face of starvation the poult became creative. It was seen scavenging the few carcasses it could find, and began chasing after ammonoids, fish and swimming crustaceans. It didn't seem to have a clue how to extract the edible parts off an ammonite shell without mashing the whole thing into a pulp, though so it soon gave up this experiment, but it managed to catch enough fish to keep it alive and going. The next step came as a shock to the observers: one day the young walrooster killed and ate the most of a small seaguin. Not expecting any danger from the commonly friendly molluscivores, seaguins were unprepared for the aberrant that attacked them to kill, so the walrooster found a new ample source of nourishment. This strange diet of fish, seabirds and carrion kept the young walrooster alive and well, in fact it seemed to grow at a comparable rate to normal poults after the first rough weeks without its mother.
The young walrooster turned predator didn't join a group with other youths, but grew increasingly solitary. It seemed to spend most of its time on the edge of the colony, which didn't promise it much longevity. A year later, when the scientists returned to see how the last year's poults were doing as adult members of the colony, they for their great amazement found the motherless walrooster still alive. Not only that, but its feeding habits had taken a new sinister turn: it was seen killing and eating unprotected poults while their mothers were out at sea, feeding. When it was caught in the act, it was violently driven away by members of the poulting colony. Its hide bore several wounds and scars that hinted that this behavior had been going on for some time. Still the cannibal walrooster managed to survive the time that the scientists observed the colony, even long after the tracking device implanted under its skin had stopped working. It seemed to have no interest with mating and spent its time some distance away from the colony, only entering it during nest raids. It seems that the deviant walrooster no longer considered its kin as anything else than food.
After the results of this study were published, several other possible killer walroosters were identified, either from observed cases of young walroosters fishing or scavenging, or from outright acts of cannibalism. The cannibal walroosters even appeared to act like other arctic predators, such as sea wolves, concentrating on the fatty tissues and abandoning the meat. It was also noted that well-adjusted walroosters in a colony were never observed scavenging or fishing, although such behavior may still be possible among normal individuals during especially harsh conditions. However the previous cases of infanticide among walroosters have now been attributed to disturbed individuals that have lost their mothers during the critical period of learning how to feed.