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21st November, 2011

About the monk seal photo taken at Giglio Island (Tuscan Archipelago) on 7 June 2009…

Letters to the Editor

The last issue of TMG included a “photo quiz” promoted by the Italian Monk Seal Group – Gruppo Foca Monaca: the photo was one out of 41 shots taken by a tourist from a low cliff near the tower of Campese, on the north-western part of Giglio, and the marine mammal was at about 20 meters distance from the coast. The sighting lasted for more than half an hour, and other people were present. TMG staff comment was very clear: “As far as TMG is concerned… we think we see two seals (to judge from the stretched appearance and the subtle foreground shape…)”.

The quiz picture

Photo 1 and 2 (Courtesy Marco Prete)

I would like here to give my personal evaluations to the event. As GFM, we made an accurate evaluation of the photo (including all the others), and we reached the same conclusion: the presence, at the same moment and in the same place, of two animals, something that was not at all noticed by the photographer.

One of the two seals was sighted many times (approx. 10), from 11:58 up to 12:35. The photos were taken in this lapse of time with a professional Canon, using a 200 mm zoom, and with 3 shots/second setting.

The animal looked very disturbed, raising the head out of the water, a behaviour clearly visible in the photo no. 1, the first of seven shots, where the sixth (photo no. 2) shows how the seal was looking towards “something” just behind, and not towards the observers that were standing up on the cliff.

Photo 3 (Courtesy Marco Prete)

A second sequence of three shots (11:59) shows the second seal diving (photo no.3): it is possible to notice the difference from the first seal looking at the skin colour, much darker (typical of adult males). Have a look at the insets included in the same picture: the colour is much lighter.

Several shots, including the one featured in the “photo quiz”, show the lighter seal together with a part view of hind flippers, placed in a position impossible to be its own: the most likely explanation is that the other seal was just underneath, trying to catch her: a behaviour suggestive of courtship.

Photo 4 (Courtesy Marco Prete)

Finally, within the lapse of time between the first and the last picture, the lighter seal did not move away from the cliff, but – as it is shown in the last photo (photo no. 4) – she came closer, further confirming that she did not care very much about the people watching her from the rocks.

If I can add some further considerations to the description of the behaviour of such a still rather unknown species, (I guess somebody could define it as enriched by personal “insights”), I must admit that I was a bit frustrated by the fact that there were no other notes or comments to the “photo quiz”, apart from the one of TMG. This aspect can be assumed as a clear symbol of the lack of ideas or information exchange among the community dealing with monk seal study and conservation. I am personally convinced that monk seals can be saved only through a sincere and clear exchange of ideas and information among all those involved in their conservation. I unfortunately learned, on several occasions, that this does not happen at all, and this “behaviour” often involves those that work “professionally” on the issue. The reasons for such “scientific discretion” can vary and are sometimes understandable, but we should not forget that the monk seal is one of the rarest species on earth, and any information, even partial, is extremely important for the conservation community, to improve the protection.

Emanuele Coppola – Gruppo Foca Monaca Italia

Photo gallery containing all the photos from Giglio: http://www.naturaindiretta.com/gfm/giglio/index.htm

TMG replies: After making comparisons with other photographs of adult female Mediterranean monk seals TMG had to reverse its opinion that “we think we see two seals” in the picture of the “photo quiz”. Comparing pictures, we thought it much more likely that it shows just one animal. Also now, after finally seeing all the pictures in the gallery, we see no convincing evidence to the contrary. — Matthias Schnellmann

3rd November, 2011

Feeding orphaned monk seal pups

Letters to the Editor

Comments on Turkish NGO’s efforts to substitute force-feeding with hand-feeding
[Two orphaned pups enter rehab in Foça | Foça pups: feeding video]

This is certainly preferable to tube-feeding – if the pups will take sufficient food this way. However, better still would be to enable the pups to suck by bottle-feeding. Have you attempted this? There is a baby’s soft silicone nursing bottle available (Tommee Tippee Nuby natural touch soft flex silicone nurser). This enables you to squeeze the bottle gently with the teat in the pup’s mouth and give the pup the idea of sucking from the bottle. It might be worth a try.

I am pleased to note you kept both pups together – this will have greatly benefited their normal behaviour after release. I am including this info on the Seal Conservation Soc Med monk seal page, rehab section. Could you let me know the pups’ sexes (and their names), whether they were tagged or marked in any way at release, and any information you have on them post-release? Many thanks and best wishes.

— Sue Wilson (Tara Seal Research and Seal Conservation Society)

Cem Orkun Kiraç of the Underwater Research Society – Mediterranean Seal Research Group (SAD-AFAG) replies:

Thank you for your interest in the rescue and rehab of the two orphaned pups; I would be glad to clarify some points and reply to the questions in your feedback in the TMG.

SAD-AFAG and other relevant organizations in the world had been trying to feed orphaned monk seals under rehabilitation without relying on force-feeding for a long time. However, force-feeding proved to be the only feasible technique until this last case in 2011. In our experience, food range changes from octopus to eel and from bonito to grey mullet depending on the different phases of the rehabilitation and care process.

As for the feeding of monk seal pups, since a cow-based milk formula is not advised for monk seal pups, only fish porridge, which is prepared carefully prior to force-feeding, is given to pups through a tube. Fish porridge is not a thin liquid and contains fine particles of fish flesh — although minced well and mixed with water — and therefore easily obstructs the opening of a silicone nurser. Apart from this apparent limitation, monk seal pups also refuse to suckle from the nurser. During the rehab and care process by SAD-AFAG of the two pups named Dilara and Tina, both females, in the Foça Rehab Unit, we tried insistently to achieve this technique in several different ways; however, the pups refused to suckle on the natural touch soft flex silicone nurser in the first week, as we expected. Actually, although the fish is minced thoroughly, the fish flesh particles become stuck and the liquid does not flow. Therefore, even if the pups had desired to suckle the nurser from a bottle, it would not have been possible to achieve a flow of fish porridge. Meanwhile, different techniques were tried including offering fish porridge to let the pups eat directly from an open cup.

Fortunately, SAD-AFAG’s rehab team first succeeded in teaching the pups to suckle the carer’s finger after some time, which finally led the pups to suckle fish porridge from the open cups. They ate very well without any complication and even developed this ability as time passed. We then gradually increased the amount of fish porridge to 1500 gr, on average, consisting of fish and water in each feeding session for each pup, both of which consumed the full amount.

Later in the last period, the pups passed to the live fish eating stage, completing their rehab in 3.5 months. Just before release, the pups weighed 34 kg and 37 kg respectively, and were very healthy and strong so that even blood sampling could be made very difficult due to vigorous resistance exerted against the carers and the veterinarian.

Completing the clinical examinations on site and also analysis of blood, vaginal smear, nose secretion and faeces samples, the Veterinary Polyclinics’ report also proved that the animals had no health problem. Therefore, without hesitation, it was decided jointly by SAD-AFAG and the Turkish Ministry of Environment & Forest to finish the rehab process. The pups were released along the wild coast between Anamur and Gazipaşa, Southern Türkiye on 2 April 2011. The pups were treated in the Foça Monk Seal Rehab Unit so as to bring interaction with carers to an absolute minimum.

Preparing for release, SAD-AFAG decided not to mark the animals in order not to generate curiosity, especially among local people and fishermen, who may otherwise have approached or tried to interact with the pups. SAD-AFAG also avoided mounting any satellite device (transmitter) on top of the head of the animals, reasoning that device and antenna could pose a serious risk of entanglement for the pups in set nets laid by artisanal fishermen. Based on our experience along Turkish coasts, the mortality rate of monk seal pups 4 to 8 months of age due to entanglement in set nets underwater and drowning is high. Therefore, it was considered possible that, if mounted, the antennas of the devices would create an increased risk for the survival of the pups.

Our team, the Turkish Coast Guard boat and the Ministry of Environment & Forest district directorate staff, all working on site, attempted to monitor the pups after the release for around three months. The above organizations, which monitored the site independently, reported no dead seal stranded along the coastline and no live monk seal pups approaching local fishermen or local people, a sign of imprinted pups. Therefore, our judgment is that both pups merged into the meta-population living in the Anamur and Gazipaşa district (Cilicia region) with its remote rocky coasts, cliffs and several suitable caves.

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I hope these replies and clarification are satisfactory, and in case you need further information please do not hesitate to contact us.

— Cem O. Kiraç, SAD-AFAG