- Status: Critically endangered
- Known as: Hawaiian Monk Seal
- Estimated numbers left in the wild: 1,100.
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The Hawaiian monk seal is one of just three species – one probably extinct – that lives in tropical waters. This animal is named for its cowl-like skin folds on the head, as well as its solitary habits.
Monk seals are about 2.3 meters long and weigh 225 to 275 kilograms. They are earless seals with no external ears and are covered in dark grey fur molted yearly.
Hawaiian monk seals spend a lot of time in the water, partly thanks to the mild temperatures of the local seas. They forage through the nearby coral reefs, eating spiny lobsters as one of their major dietary items and preying on octopuses, eels, and fish.
When in need of rest, or when a storm is approaching, they return to the beach and haul out onto dry land. In the case of a threatening storm, they may take shelter in the foliage growing directly behind the beach, highly unusual behavior for a seal.
Breeding is problematic for Hawaiian monk seals because there are too many males, which translates into sexual aggression and possible killing of females by gangs of amorous males. Furthermore, the female monk seal does not leave her pup to feed during the six weeks until the pup is weaned.
This causes massive weight loss and weakens the female, leaving her vulnerable to sharks or illness once she returns to the sea to feed. The maximum life expectancy is probably 30 years.
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The Hawaiian monk seal is a rare tropical seal found only in the northern Hawaiian Islands and the coral reefs nearby, which provide it with a rich food source.
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Humans are one of the Hawaiian monk seal’s biggest threats, with two main clusters of hunting occurring in the 19th century (when whaling vessels devastated any animal populations easy to reach from the water) and again during the Second World War, when the American Navy hunted these animals for food.
Hunting is no longer a major hazard, but human disturbance can drive seals out of valuable habitats even if the disturbance is limited.
Many secondary threats are also taking a toll on Hawaiian monk seals, entanglement in fishing nets, or marine debris heading the list.
Toxoplasmosis from cat-dropping run-off is a new danger that has killed several seals. A shortage of females means that many males often try to mate with a female at one time, possibly killing her in the process. Finally, many of the natural prey items of these seals have been overfished, leading to starvation, especially among youngsters.
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The Hawaiian monk seal is the subject of a concentrated conservation effort by the United States government and various environmental groups. The seals and the coral reefs they depend on for food are protected by one of the world’s largest marine reserves.
Further efforts include raising the number of females by isolating and raising female pups in special areas where they are given adequate food and kept safe from disturbance or “mobbing,” as well as protective care for undernourished female pups.
Additional methods of conserving the species are planned, including vaccination, feeding, relocation to other Hawaiian islands, and even drugging of males to lower their aggression and prevent them from killing females.
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Monk Seal Foundation
The Monk Seal Foundation focuses on scientific education, protection, and recovery programs to help the Hawaiian Monk Seal to survive in the wild and provide a sanctuary for injured seals.