Monk Seal Fact Files
Mediterranean Monk Seal
Examination of ancient Greek and Roman texts indicates that the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) was exploited heavily for its fur, oil and meat, and for its use in medicines and entertainment, particularly during the Roman era (Johnson & Lavigne 1999a).
Roman sources also indicate that the monk seal was already regarded as a pest by fishermen, and was killed for damaging nets and “stealing” fish. Entanglement in fishing gear, a modern era mortality factor, was similarly recorded by ancient writers.
The Mediterranean monk seal also played a role in ancient mythology and superstition, with several sources indicating that the species may have inspired ancient siren and mermaid myths. Elsewhere in Greek mythology, monk seals were placed under the protection of Poseidon and Apollo because they showed a great love for sea and sun. In recent excavations on the island of Rhodes, archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a monk seal ceremonially buried next to a dog and humans; they theorise that the seal may have become a pet who received honoured burial rites after its death (Johnson 2002).
Such benevolent attitudes towards the species were, however, few and far between. For the most part, the human relationship to the monk seal was both hostile and intensely utilitarian.
As a result of detailed historical study, accumulated evidence now suggests that many of the large monk seal herds that existed in early antiquity were either dramatically reduced or extirpated by intensive exploitation during the Roman era.
Throughout much of its historical range, human persecution and progressive habitat deterioration also appears to have been largely responsible for changing a naturally gregarious beach dwelling species into a less social and reclusive inhabiter of caves (Johnson & Lavigne 1999a, Johnson 2004).
Examination of later texts indicates that the monk seal in the Mediterranean continued to be exploited for its fur, oil, meat and perceived medicinal properties well into the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, albeit on a much-reduced scale than the exploitation witnessed during the Roman era. The species also continued to be a target of Mediterranean fishers, angered over reduced catches and damaged nets (Johnson 2004).
Elsewhere, large, newly-discovered monk seal colonies in the northeastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa became a lucrative if short-lived industry for French, Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the 16th century. In the Mediterranean, sustained persecution of surviving groups, coupled with increasing human disturbance and deterioration of habitat, appears to have acted selectively against colony formation, leading to an inexorable decline and fragmentation of the population. Although described as ‘rare’ by science in 1779, the species continued to be a target for collectors from zoos and museums until the early 20th century, when extinctions along broad stretches of coastline first became apparent [see Mediterranean monk seals in captivity] (Johnson 2004).
This section has been excerpted/adapted from:
Johnson, William M. 2004. Monk seals in post-classical history. The role of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in European history and culture, from the fall of Rome to the 20th century. Mededelingen 39. The Netherlands Commission for International Nature Protection, Leiden: 1-91, 31 figs. [PDF edition 2.0MB] [Order hard copy at NHBS Environment Bookstore]
Johnson, William M. and David M. Lavigne. 1999. Monk seals in antiquity. The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in ancient history and literature. Mededelingen 35. The Netherlands Commission for International Nature Protection, Leiden: 1-101., 17 figs. [PDF edition 1.6MB] [Order hard copy at NHBS Environment Bookstore]
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