Monk Seal Fact Files
Caribbean Monk Seal
New York Zoological Society, 1910.
Observing Caribbean 'sea wolves' on the coast of Santo Domingo in 1494, Columbus promptly ordered his crew to kill eight of the animals for food, paving the way for exploitation of the species by the European immigrants who came in his wake. The slaughter continued up until the 20th century, with hunters sometimes killing as many as a hundred seals in a night. Caribbean monk seals were also killed by scientists for museum collections, and the last confirmed sighting occurred off Seranilla Bank in 1952.
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Phocidae
- Subfamily: Monachinae
Distribution and Habitat
At one time, Caribbean, or West Indian, monk seals inhabited the Caribbean Sea, northwest to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as from the Bahamas to the Yucatan Peninsula, south along the Central American coast and east to the northern Antilles. Extralimital records from the southeastern United States also exist.
The Caribbean monk seal was formally declared extinct in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. The last reported sighting in 1952 was from Seranilla Bank between Jamaica and Honduras, where a small colony was known to have lived. The Caribbean monk seal was documented as being easily approachable and not aggressive and they were easily killed during directed hunts in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also known that sailors, whalers, and fishers opportunistically killed the seals they encountered. As well, Caribbean monk seals were killed by museum collectors and displayed in zoos. All monk seal species appear to be sensitive to disturbance, and early habitat exclusion by humans throughout their range may have exacerbated their decline. In response to recent unconfirmed Caribbean monk seal sightings in areas within their historical range, surveys have been carried out as late as 1993.
Very little scientific information was gathered before the Caribbean monk seal disappeared. Males are thought to have reached a length of 2.1 to 2.4 m; females may have been slightly smaller. The backs of adult seals were brown with a grey tinge; the underside was pale yellow, as was the muzzle. The fur of newborns was long and dark. Evidence suggests that the pups were born in December weighing between 16 and 18 kg, and measuring up to 1 m in length.
Boyd, I.L. and M.P. Stanfield. 1998. Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies. Oryx. 32:310-316.
IUCN. 1996. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
Jefferson et al. 1994. Marine mammals of the world. FAO and UNEP. 320pp.
LeBoef, B.J., K.W. Kenyon, B. Villa-Ramirez. 1986. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct. Marine Mammal Science 2(1):70-72.
Reijnders et al. 1993. Seals, Fur Seals, Sea Lions, and Walrus. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN Seal Specialist Group. Gland, Switzerland. 88pp.
Adapted from Marine Mammal Fact Sheet Series: Caribbean Monk Seal. IMMA Inc.
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