Spotlight: Monk Seals, ‘living fossils’ of the sea

They’re the oldest species of seals on the planet, believed to have been swimming Earth’s waters for millions of years. And today they’re the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy Kaua’i Monk Seal Watch Program.

Hawai’i’s monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) are one of two mammal species endemic to the islands (the other is the Hoary Bat). Long ago, Hawaiians named these creatures Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua  or “dog that runs in the sea.”

Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) were said in Greek mythology to be protected by Apollo and Poseidon, and were described by Aristotle and other Greek writers. A monk seal face was etched onto coins dating from the 6th century BC, found in the ancient city of Ionia, on the Aegean Sea.

The third recently known monk seal population, the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), has been declared extinct; the last one was sighted in 1952.

Mediterranean monk seal in cave. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto; via WikiCommons

Today, the Mediterranean monk seal population is precariously below 500 individuals and believed to be declining. They’re now found predominantly in caves and areas isolated from humans – not the open beaches where scientists believe they traditionally spent their time.

Hawaiian monk seals number less than 1,200 individuals, and are also believed to be declining in alarming numbers. A 2009 scientific study stated that Hawaiian monk seals face a genetic bottleneck, with the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal species ever studied.

Both populations are critically endangered, and face multiple threats – encroaching human populations, entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear, infectious disease and more. They also have a relatively slow reproductive rate compared to other seals.

Funding for their protection in both Hawai’i and Greece is not certain, particularly in these rough economic times.

Learn about these remarkable creatures here (Hawaiian monk seal), here (Mediterranean monk seal)here (the tragic Caribbean monk seal), and here. Keep up on latest monk seal news here.

And perhaps  figure out what you can do to help them make it through another million years on this planet.

Some ideas are here and  here for helping the Hawaiian clan; you can support efforts in the Mediterranean by adopting a monk seal here. (Use GoogleTranslate on this page)

Update 16 Feb. 2012: TV3 out of NZ has a good read on a male monk seal being relocated to Waikiki Aquarium because of aggressive behavior toward his brethren. 

Update, 27 Jan. 2012: this AP article is a good read – illustrating how NOAA’s efforts have been helping the critically endangered monk seal population in Hawai’i.

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4 responses to “Spotlight: Monk Seals, ‘living fossils’ of the sea

  1. The monk seals are a species in crisis and without urgent action, the decline is likely to continue. It is estimated that by 2014 there will be less then 1,000 Hawaiian Monk Seals remaining. So, THANK YOU for your efforts to help raise awareness of their plight. Building awareness is a critical first step on the road to recovery for these amazing animals.

    Regards,

    Pat
    Monk Seal Foundation

  2. Pingback: Spotlight: Monk Seals, ‘living fossils’ of the sea » Greece on WEB·

  3. Pingback: Spotlight: Horseshoe crabs- 400 million years & counting! « Oceanwire·

  4. Hello and thank you for the article. As a Turk, I carry about the Mediterranean Monk Seals, because Turkey and Greece have a great role for these wonderful animals.

    It is assumed that 100 individuals of this species is living off the coasts of Turkey. I am a dive instructor. And unfortunately, not that much, just 5 years ago, I was able to see couple of male Mediterranean Monk Seals in Karaburun. But I haven’t seen one of them since one year. Overfishing, water pollution and such kind of human-based activities are killing them.

    Thank you for the article again.

    Kind regards,

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