Headlines – News – Articles
18th February, 2014

Mediterranean monk seals cohabit with humans in Madeira

by Rosa Pires, Parque Natural da Madeira Service
“Half” resting in the sea at the Funchal marina.

“Half” resting in the sea at the Funchal marina.

The presence of monk seals around Madeira is no longer headline news. Here at the Parque Natural da Madeira Service (PNMS) we have collected almost a 1000 sightings of Mediterranean monk seals around the main island of Madeira since the year 2000. What is new though, is the behaviour of two adult males that began using areas frequented by humans, such as beaches or bathing complexes, marinas and ports. Since June 2013, we have collected 47 reports of these two seals in such areas, along the southeast coast of Madeira. Most of the sightings described the seals as resting in the sea or on land, but also hunting, and ignoring human presence, even if in some situations curiosity brought people very close to the animals.

This is not a common behaviour for this species. In the case of one of these two seals, named “Half”, who was found last August with a severe injury to his neck, his weakness, and the possibility that he was fed by people, could be one explanation [see Wounded Madeiran monk seal returns to the sea]. Another is that as these two seals were born on Madeira and not on the uninhabited Desertas islands, this resulted in an adaptation of behaviour towards human presence. Combined with knowledge of more sheltered places to rest and the advantage of being able to hunt in these areas without too much disturbance, it is a possibility!

“Half” resting on a Madeiran beach.

“Half” resting on a Madeiran beach.

Generally the reaction of the people of Madeira to these surprising sightings is very positive – they inform the PNMS and the marine authorities. However, for the most part their perception is that the seals are ill and require veterinary treatment. As a precautionary measure, it is important to keep an eye on these seals in case an intervention should become necessary. So far, however, we are finding that the best intervention is none — just to create space for the seals.

Informing Madeiran people how to coexist with the monk seal is becoming all the more important.

19th December, 2013

Poster presentation on the Gyaros monk seal colony

Recent Publications

Karamanlidis et al._MMC_2013Karamanlidis, A.A., S. Adamantopoulou, V. Paravas, M. Psaradellis, P. Dendrinos. 2013. Demographic structure and social behaviour of the unique Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) colony of the island of Gyaros. Poster presentation, in: 20th Biennial Conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. 10th December 2013, Dunedin, New Zealand. [PDF 5.1 MB]

2nd December, 2013

The Curious Case of the Monk Seal — Why ‘Monk’?

“In this posture, it looked from the rear not dissimilar to a black monk ..." — Johann Hermann, 1779

“In this posture, it looked from the rear not dissimilar to a black monk …” — Johann Hermann, 1779

On 20 November we posted a “Pop Quiz” to draw attention to some of the explanations (many of them fanciful, it has to be said) that have been offered over the years for the origins of the monk seal’s name. To the question “How did the Monk Seal Find its Name?” the multiple choice answers were:

(1) Because the black seal with the white belly patch was reminiscent of the robes of a monastic community.

(2) Because the monk seal is shy and retiring, living a “monastic” lifestyle.

(3) Because of the folds of fat around the neck of the seal were reminiscent of a monk’s hood or scapular.

(4) Because the rows of seals stretched out lazily on the sands reminded Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder of a procession of hooded monks.

(5) None of the above.

The answer, we can now reveal, is: (5) None of the above.

The name ‘Monk’ seal was suggested by Johann Hermann in 1779, when the naturalist published the first modern scientific description of the species based on observations of a captive specimen found in a travelling show in Strasbourg. Hermann suggested naming the animal Münchs-Robbe (Phoca monachus), because he somewhat vaguely remembered a paper describing an animal known locally as moine in Marseille, which he concluded must be this same species. He was also reassured by contacts who had lived in Marseille that the animal was indeed called moine there. Wryly noting a monkish resemblance (the shape of the head and scapula-like shoulders) as the seal arched up on the pool edge, he judged it a well suited name, and saw no reason to change it.

Herman wrote (in German): “In this posture, it looked from the rear not dissimilar to a black monk, in the way that its smooth round head resembled a human head covered by a hood, and its shoulders, with the short, outstretched feet, imagined like two elbows protruding from a scapular, from which a long, unfolded, black robe flows down.”

Thomas Pennant, citing Herman as his source, mistranslated this in his History of Quadrupeds, Vol. 2, 1781: “When the animal is placed on its back, the skin of the neck folds like a monk’s hood.” This erroneous translation is most probably the source of the often repeated explanation (even by present-day biologists) that folds of fat observed around the neck are reminiscent of a monk’s hood — thus inspiring the name.

In Hermann’s day, the monk seal was also known by different colloquial names according to region and locale, for example simply as fokia in Greece, but elsewhere, amongst other variations, as sea bear, sea calf, sea dog, sea oxen and sea wolf. In his description of the monk seal, Hermann admits that he could not find the source of his recollection that the animal was known locally as moine in Marseille. A lead though, supporting Herman’s assumption that they are one and the same species, comes from the 19th century Dalmatian naturalist Spiro Brusina, who reported that Italian fishers knew it as monaco marino, the marine monk. Likewise, on the Dalmatian island of Vis, the popular name for the seal was morski fratar, the Sea Friar.

As to the reasons why the seal was named locally moine, monaco marino or morski fratar, we can currently only speculate (see Monk Seals in Post-Classical History, below, for further possible deductions). Perhaps some linguistic and cultural research might shed further light on that particular aspect of the puzzle. So far, although frequently reported, the historical record has not revealed any firm evidence linking the monk’s name to a solitary or ‘monastic’ lifestyle.

For further details see

Our illustrated two-volume “Monk Seal Histories”, Monk Seals in Antiquity and Monk Seals in Post-Classical History, available here in PDF format.

For those familiar with German, the original description of the monk seal by Johann Hermann is available online: Beschreibung der Münchs-Robbe, in Beschäftigungen der Berlinischen Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde 4 (XIX), 1779.

20th November, 2013

POP QUIZ: How did the Monk Seal Find its Name?

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Over the years, there has been much confusion over the origins of the monk seal’s name, as well as many imaginative explanations. Here are a few to be going on with. Can you identify the correct answer? If you think you can, please post your answer below. We’ll be posting our reply about a week from now.

How did the Monk Seal Find its Name?

(1) Because the black seal with the white belly patch was reminiscent of the robes of a monastic community.

(2) Because the monk seal is shy and retiring, living a “monastic” lifestyle.

(3) Because of the folds of fat around the neck of the seal were reminiscent of a monk’s hood or scapular.

(4) Because the rows of seals stretched out lazily on the sands reminded Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder of a procession of hooded monks.

(5) None of the above.

To answer these and other historical puzzles on the Mediterranean monk seal, you may wish to read our illustrated two-volume “Monk Seal Histories”, available here in PDF format.

13th November, 2013

First pup of 2013 spends 24 hours in Desertas Islands Rehabilitation Unit

by Rosa Pires, Parque Natural da Madeira Service
The pup resting on Tabaqueiro beach, Desertas Islands. Photo: PNMS.

The pup resting on Tabaqueiro beach, Desertas Islands. Photo: PNMS.

We are now in the monk seal pupping season in Madeira’s Desertas Islands. Over recent years, peak births have occurred in October, but this year we detected the first pup on 31 October. This pup was observed over 4 days to be always alone, resting on the same beach – Tabaqueiro. When on one day it was considered to be overly lethargic, it was decided to take the pup to the Rehabilitation Unit on the Desertas Islands. Fortunately, this allowed us to confirm that the pup was in a good condition; a male about three weeks of age, 114cm in length and weighing around 20kg. Awaiting better sea conditions, the young seal was released into its natural habitat the following day. Immediately entering the sea, it swam to the cave where we believe it was born – Tabaqueiro cave, considered the monk seal maternity cave of the Desertas Islands. → Continue reading First pup of 2013 spends 24 hours in Desertas Islands Rehabilitation Unit

18th October, 2013

Pup trapped in gill net released in the ‘Coast of Seals’ Reserve

by CBD-Habitat Foundation

The ‘Costa de las Focas’ Marine and Coastal Reserve was created in 2001 by CBD-Habitat Foundation with the support of local fishermen and regional authorities, with the objective of protecting the breeding caves of the last Mediterranean monk seal colony in the world, located on the Cabo Blanco peninsula (Mauritania). Since then, every single day, the surveillance team has been present to prevent the setting of fishing gear and deter goose barnacle pickers and other potential threats or disturbance to the breeding caves and vicinity. → Continue reading Pup trapped in gill net released in the ‘Coast of Seals’ Reserve

4th September, 2013

Wounded Madeiran monk seal returns to the sea

by Rosa Pires, Parque Natural da Madeira Service

[click on images to enlarge]

On 27 August 2013 a Mediterranean monk seal was found in a weakened state at Porto Moniz, on the northern coast of Madeira island.

This seal, known as “Half”, an adult male who has been monitored since 1997 by PNMS (Parque Natural da Madeira Service), was observed by local people on a small stony beach, its debilitated state apparently due to a severe injury in the neck area. → Continue reading Wounded Madeiran monk seal returns to the sea

20th July, 2013

Sketchy details provided of new EU life project for Giaros

WWF Greece, MOm and its Greek and international partners announced the launch of a new protected area management project centred around the uninhabited island of Giaros in the Cyclades islands this week. Although long on PR and short on detail, the press release is keen to stress the perceived benefits of the MPA to neighbouring island development (Syros and Andros in particular), in tourism and fisheries management, by taking a “holistic” approach to conservation and economic opportunity. Giaros, a former military zone and prison island, has since become a Natura 2000 protected area, and is an important Mediterranean monk seal colony. The project, “Cyclades LIFE”, is funded by the European Commission’s LIFE funding mechanism, and by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

The island of Giaros, as seen from Syros.

The island of Giaros, as seen from Syros.

Further information

WWF Greece. Cyclades LIFE: A ground-breaking initiative for sustainable growth and the conservation of nature in the Cyclades. Press Release, 15 July 2013.

Konstantinos Mentzelopoulos. Our Sea, Our Life. The Monachus Guardian 12 (1): June 2009.