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.


Olive ridley turtle “arribada” in Mexico

Amid the ongoing disaster of the Gulf oil spill and the unspeakable violence happening in parts of Mexico, an astonishing natural wonder dating back thousands of years is happening on some Mexican coasts — the annual “arribadas” of Olive ridley sea turtles.

Described by scientists as “one of the most unique synchronized nesting habits in the natural world,” the “arribada” is breathtaking to see – turtles arriving in waves of hundreds on a single day. They face the usual threats of sea turtles trying to nest on beaches near humans – turtles harrassed and harmed, and eggs taken.

WiLDCOAST/COSTASALVAjE, an organization helping locals protect the turtles, gives us the Ixtapilla beach story in excerpts from this article — (translation from Spanish via GoogleTranslate, so a bit rough -bold text is added by us):

(Ixtapilla, Michoacán) “This is one of 12 beaches in the world that records massive arrival of sea turtles…

WiLDCOAST, the Canada Fund, CONANP and Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, have formed an alliance to support the efforts of the Nahua community of Ixtapilla in protecting this endangered species.

This phenomenon is recorded only during the rainy season on three Mexican Pacific beaches that do not cover more than Continue reading “Olive ridley turtle “arribada” in Mexico”