Headlines – News – Articles
12th June, 2014

NOAA releases Final Environmental Impact Statement for Monk Seal Actions

NOAA Announcement

hawaiianmonkseal1_pifscThe Final PEIS for Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Actions was made available for public review from April 11 to May 12, 2014.  The Preferred Alternative identified in the Final PEIS is Alternative 3, Limited Translocation.  The Preferred Alternative does not include any translocation option that involves moving seals born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and releasing them in the main Hawaiian Islands.  The Final PEIS is available at:
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/hawaiianmonkseal.htm.

NOAA Fisheries has issued the Record of Decision for the Final PEIS, which summarizes the alternatives considered, identifies the preferred alternative (Alternative 3, Limited Translocation) and why it was chosen, and identifies required mitigation and monitoring.  NOAA Fisheries plans to implement Alternative 3 and permit and conduct the research and enhancement activities included in this alternative.

The Record of Decision is also available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/hawaiianmonksealeis.htm.

HMS Final PEIS Record of Decision (PDF 255 KB)

1st June, 2014

Mediterranean monk seal reportedly harassed by drunken tourists in Pula, Croatia

Official Pula Facebook page issues strong warning

The early morning appearance of the monk seal aroused the interest of some drunken tourists, according to a report in Vecernji List, which reported that the tourists tried to force the monk seal back into the sea, before attempting to force it back into the sea by grabbing its tail. Their attempts failed, as local authorities were quickly on the scene to stop the actions of the tourists. [Read more at Digital Journal]

14th May, 2014

New genus, Neomonachus, recommended for Caribbean, Hawaiian monk seals

Recent Publications

open_access_orangeDirk-Martin Scheel, Graham Slater, Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis, Charles Potter, David Rotstein, Kyriakos Tsangaras, Alex Greenwood and Kristofer M. Helgen. 2014. Biogeography and taxonomy of extinct and endangered monk seals illuminated by ancient DNA and skull morphology, ZooKeys 409 (2014): 1-33. [Downloadable in various formats from Zookeys]

Abstract

Extinctions and declines of large marine vertebrates have major ecological impacts and are of critical concern in marine environments. The Caribbean monk seal, Monachus tropicalis, last definitively reported in 1952, was one of the few marine mammal species to become extinct in historical times. Despite its importance for understanding the evolutionary biogeography of southern phocids, the relationships of M. tropicalis to the two living species of critically endangered monk seals have not been resolved. In this study we present the first molecular data for M. tropicalis, derived from museum skins. Phylogenetic analysis of cytochrome b sequences indicates that M. tropicalis was more closely related to the Hawaiian rather than the Mediterranean monk seal. Divergence time estimation implicates the formation of the Panamanian Isthmus in the speciation of Caribbean and Hawaiian monk seals. Molecular, morphological and temporal divergence between the Mediterranean and “New World monk seals” (Hawaiian and Caribbean) is profound, equivalent to or greater than between sister genera of phocids. As a result, we classify the Caribbean and Hawaiian monk seals together in a newly erected genus, Neomonachus. The two genera of extant monk seals (Monachus and Neomonachus) represent old evolutionary lineages each represented by a single critically endangered species, both warranting continuing and concerted conservation attention and investment if they are to avoid the fate of their Caribbean relative.

12th May, 2014

Monk seal breeding cave in Turkey threatened by harbour construction

By Middle East Technical University (METU) – Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS)

Harbour construction endangering a known Mediterranean monk seal breeding cave in Yeşilovacik, Mersin, poses great danger to the northeastern population of the species

Online Petition: Please consider signing the online petition against this development at Change.org

The Middle East Technical University Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS-METU) has been studying the Mediterranean monk seal population inhabiting the northeastern Mediterranean since 1994. The cave surveys and subsequent monitoring activities in the area showed that the western rocky shores of Mersin (a county on the south coast of Turkey) holds the largest continuously breeding monk seal colony on the Turkish coast. During the onset of the 1990’s, this group of seals was on the verge of extinction because the social bonds within the colony had been broken by very high deliberate killings and loss of habitat. The fragmented community structure led to almost zero whelping rate. However, until very recently, despite the negative growth of the species elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the number of seals in this area was increasing with steadily improving whelping success. The size of the colony is estimated as 34 individuals as of 2013. Yet, the range of this population was expanded by some members of the colony returning to habitats abandoned in the past and establishing new families.

The plight of the species in the area was probably reversed by two conservation measures enforced since 1997. The first is the ban on an industrial fishery over the seals’ overfished feeding habitats by which the main food source of the growing colony was secured. Secondly, the coastal strips containing essential habitats for seals, such as breeding and resting caves, have been designated as a First Degree Natural Asset, so that further coastal development has been stopped. These regulations enabled re-integration of the dispersed seal community so that social structure within the families was re-established and the breeding success was re-gained.

A pregnant seal requires certain morphological features in a cave in order to use it to give birth and to raise her pup, such as an underwater entrance reaching to a well aerated air chamber; a haul-out platform long and wide enough to protect a new born pup against high waves during storms; a well sheltered inner pool in which the land-born pup can practice swimming. There are more than 50 caves used by the seals within the protected area; however only 8 of these caves fulfil the whelping requirements allowing them to be used by breeding females. This low number clearly underlines the uniqueness of the breeding caves and urges their protection.

One of these breeding caves is located near to Yesilovacık village. The cave has been monitored remotely by infrared cameras and it was documented that a small family of seals composed of 4 individuals use the cave throughout a year. This cave marked the easternmost limit of the seal colony before enforcement of the seal conservation measures mentioned above. Today this cave acts as a bridge between the core colony and the pioneers moving further east. Moreover, it is a very critical cave since there are no other caves in the near vicinity with similar morphology that the inhabitants could move to if they are forced to leave. Very recently the university was contacted to evaluate a modification plan on the borders of one of the Natural Assets mentioned above. The plan involves construction of a new road passing through the protected area on land. Further inspections revealed that the road is just the tip of the iceberg; and that the actual plan is to construct a huge marine terminal just 500 meters away from a breeding cave and the road was intended to provide a shortcut between the new harbor and the main arterial road for the expected lorry traffic of 400 vehicles per day. The local authorities for the protection of the Natural Assets did not permit construction of the new road. However by law, the “Natural assets” conservation status does not cover seaward extension of an ecologically important coastal structure. Such a massive construction in the sea, which involves the transport and dumping of huge quantities of construction material, and the subsequent marine traffic, would inevitably have a detrimental impact on the seal cave and its inhabitants. Moreover, with the impact of a new nuclear power plant, that will be constructed 10 km west of the marine terminal, the entire monk seal population in the north-eastern Mediterranean would be deeply impacted. It is feared that these new constructions will return the seal population to the fragmented ill state experienced in early 1990’s.

As such projects would undoubtedly have detrimental consequences on the seals, a scientific team of experts from IMS-METU, has been extremely concerned about the entire venture and therefore the team initiated a monitoring survey in the cave using photo-traps on 4th April 2010 (ca 900 seal photographs have been obtained to date). Based on the surveys carried out at the site, the national authorities in charge of monk seal conservation were alerted on the importance of this issue. The inevitable consequences of the construction and chiefly the crucial loss of yet another breeding cave for the seal population in the entire eastern Mediterranean has been presented to the authorities concerned by various means including population viability analysis which projects a hopeless future for the colony. Following the reckless reaction by the authorities, a letter of complaint was submitted to the secretariat of the BERN Convention. Additionally as a response to the situation, the NGO Underwater Research Society issued a summons against the ministry responsible for the protection of wildlife in Turkey for reaching a critical decision based on a superficial report and disregarding the environmental significance of the site. Later, the ministry stated that no construction will begin until the National court has reached its final decision.

According to the report submitted by the Turkish government to the Standing Committee of the BERN Convention in October 2013, Turkish authorities halted construction for only five months despite the previous decision that “there will be no construction until the National court has reached a final decision” but meanwhile commencement of the construction operation was tragically witnessed. It was recently stated in the report of the Standing Committee held on 3-6 December 2013, that Turkish authorities will establish a pool of experts to inspect the current situation and that meanwhile building construction be suspended until the possible impact on the morphology of the cave and consequently on the Monk Seal population are assessed.

The research team has visited the area on a regular basis and is in contact with the local village inhabitants at the construction site. They witnessed that the construction activities carried on (with some deceptive slowdowns) in the area even during the breeding season of the monk seal. The efforts to push the authorities to take necessary actions and to stop the construction until the court’s decision have so far proven unsuccessful. It is vitally important to emphasize that, since the huge building construction project is continuing and has recently progressed extremely rapidly then in all probability construction may be finalized before the national court reaches its final decision.

Current Situation

Given that all cameras were active and recording the seal movements in the cave since the very beginning there has been a remarkable and worrying decrease in seal activity in the cave during 2013. More strikingly no single event was recorded during the period from the beginning of July 2013 until the beginning of December 2013. Recordings obtained in December 2013 show one female – presumably the mother – and one new born pup photographed in the same cave. Another cause for much concern has been the disappearance of a pup born in December 2012. Typical to the monk seals in the eastern Mediterranean, a young seal tends to remain in and around the natal cave during the first year of life. Moreover the number of seals that previously used the cave before the initiation of construction has vanished. There are already very few caves in the region suitable for breeding activity which is considered to be a critical factor limiting the breeding success. The lack of seal activity in the cave for the past 6 months (Fig 1) clearly shows that the seals abandoned the cave and most probably the entire area during the heavy construction period. However, the female carrying the pup was forced to return to the cave as there was no other alternative whelping site in the immediate surroundings. The last record obtained from the cameras was a single photograph showing the new born pup in a very undernourished and weak condition.

Unfortunately, the most disturbing event was the death of the said pup born in the cave around 24 November 2013. The carcass of the animal was found on the beach near the construction site by local inhabitants on 28th February 2014. A group from the construction company personnel allegedly attempted to dispose of the carcass as reported by the locals. Due to this threat, the locals hid the carcass with the aim of delivering it to IMS-METU for examination.

The necropsy of the pup was performed on 29th February 2014 at IMS-METU by authorized veterinarians. Examination revealed clear indications of malnutrition such as extremely thin blubber (1.9 cm), an empty gut with a very cachectic appearance and state. Furthermore, inspection of the events recorded by the photo-traps show no signs of the mother visiting the cave, indicating that the mother-pup bond had been broken. In the extensive and uninterrupted series of photographs the pup continually rests on the shore inside the cave, does not leave the cave in search of food and is neither accompanied by his mother nor breastfed.

To help, please sign the petition at Change.org.

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.