monachus science
Vol. 5 (1): May 2002


Peter J.H. van Bree

Zoological Museum, University of Amsterdam
P.O. Box 94766, NL-1090 GT Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Due to linguistic difficulties, rather little is known about the description and type material of the Hawaiian monk seal in the English-speaking world. It may therefore be useful, in a journal dedicated to monk seals, to publish a few notes on the original description of the species and its type material.

Events were set in motion with the three month stay of the German scientist, Prof. Dr. Hugo H. Schauinsland – later to become director of the Uebersee-Museum in Bremen – on the Hawaiian coral island of Laysan in 1896-1897 (part of the Leeward Chain, or Northwestern Hawaiian Islands). From Laysan and other Pacific islands, he brought back much biological and ethnographic material. He wrote an article in German about his stay on Laysan, of which an English translation was published by M.D.F. Udvardy in 1996 (Schauinsland 1996). Among the material he collected was the complete skin of a seal, a complete skull, the skin of the head of a seal and the facial parts of two seal skulls.

The seal material was sent to the Zoological Museum in Berlin, where the renowned mammal taxonomist Dr. Paul Matschie worked. In a detailed article published in 1905 he described the seal material under the title “Eine Robbe von Laysan” (a Seal from Laysan). He compared, in a very meticulous way, the seal remains he received from Schauinsland with pinniped material in his museum. He came to the conclusion that the animal was a true seal and belonged to the genus Monachus Fleming, 1822. He then compared his Pacific material with Mediterranean monk seal material (Monachus monachus Hermann, 1779) already in the Berlin collection and with the excellent photographs of the Caribbean monk seal, Monachus tropicalis (Gray 1850) published by D.G. Elliot in 1904. The result was that he had in his hands an undescribed species, which he named after its collector, Monachus schauinslandi.

In his article Matschie designated no holotype, so all the remains are syntypes. The complete skin was sent back to the museum at Bremen where it was mounted and exhibited, and is still on display. It received the registration number RK 502 (see G. von Wahlert, 1956). The other material stayed in Berlin. In 1956 Judith E. King, in her monograph on the genus Monachus, published photographs of the complete skull in the Berlin collection, with the legend “skull of the type specimen ZMB 32795”. Thereby she designated that skull as the lectotype of the species.

The stuffed complete skin at Bremen is a paralectotype. The two facial skull parts and the skin of a head of Monachus schauinslandi, which are also paralectotypes, stayed in the Berlin museum but cannot be found at present. Whether these objects were destroyed or donated to another museum is not known. It may even be possible that they are among unregistered material in the museum.


The author is grateful for the help he received from Dr. P.F. Becker of the Uebersee-Museum in Bremen and from Dr. M. Ade of the Zoological Museum in Berlin, now named Museum für Naturkunde.


Elliot, D.G. 1904. The land and sea mammals of Middle America and the West Indies. Publ. Field Columbian Museum (Zool. Series), 4 (2): i-xiii, 441-850.
King, J.E. 1956. The Monk Seals (Genus Monachus). Bull. British Museum (Nat. Hist.) (Zoology), 3 (5): 201-256.
Matschie, P. 1905. Eine Robbe von Laysan. Sitzungs Ber. Gesellsch. naturforschende Freunde Berlin: 254-262.
Schauinsland, H.H. 1996. Three months on a coral island (Laysan). Translated by Miklos D.F. Udvardy. Atoll Research Bulletin, no. 432: I-IV, 1-53.
Wahlert, G. von. 1956. Die Typen und Typoide des Ueberseemuseums Bremen, 4: Die Laysan-Robbe, Monachus schauinslandi Matschie, 1905 (Mammalia). Veröffentlichungen aus dem Ueberseemuseum Bremen (Reihe A), 2 (6): 365-367.


Copyright © 2002 P.J.H. van Bree, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved