Scientific name: Monachus tropicalis Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Carnivora Family: Phocidae
When did it become extinct? The last reliable record of this species is from 1952. Where did it live? As its name suggests, the Caribbean monk seal was native to the Caribbean region from the southeastern United States to northern South America, including tropical waters in the Florida Keys, Bahamas, and Greater and Lesser Antilles, and islets off the Yucatan Peninsula and the coast of southern Central American.
Seals, with their thick blubber, are well adapted to the chilly waters of the earth's poles and temperate regions, but monk seals, the only truly tropical seals, buck this trend and inhabit warm equatorial latitudes. Of the three species of monk seal, only the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seal are still around. The third species, the Caribbean monk seal, was last reliably sighted on Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and Honduras, in 1952. On his Caribbean voyages in 1493, Christopher Columbus referred to the Caribbean monk seal as the sea wolf, a term historically used to describe various seal species, perhaps because of their habit of stealing fish from the nets and lines of fishermen. Today, most of our knowledge of what this animal looked like is based on a few photographs and observational records principally from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when at least a few small colonies still existed. Caribbean monk seals were not particularly big by seal standards. Adult males reached lengths of around 2.0-2.4 m and weighted 170-270 kg, while females were slightly smaller. As seals go, this seal was said to be an attractive animal, with grizzled brown fur tinged with gray on its back that faded to yellow on its underside and muzzle. Another characteristic feature of the seal was the hoodlike rolls of fat behind its head. For hauling its body out of the water, the nails on the seal's front flippers were well developed, while those on the rear flippers were simpler.
Although this species only became extinct in recent times and was captured in a few photographs, very little information was collected on its biology. As with the other seals, the Caribbean monk seal must have been an accomplished marine predator more at home in the water than out of it. Like other monk seals, it probably had a liking for small reef fish and eels as well as invertebrates such as octopi, spiny lobsters, and crabs. As for predators, the only animals in the Caribbean, other than humans, that could have dispatched a fully grown monk seal are sharks. In the water, the agility and keen senses of the adult seals would have made them difficult prey for sharks, although young seals unfamiliar with sharks were probably more vulnerable.
Like other seals, Caribbean monk seals spent a good proportion of their time in the water. The main times for spending extended periods out of the water were the molting season (when seals haul out to dry land and shed their old fur) and the breeding season. With little seasonal change in the tropics, the breeding season probably extended over several months and was therefore longer than the breeding seasons of most seals. Very little is known about the young of the Caribbean monk seal, although several pregnant females with well-developed fetuses were killed in the Triangle Keys off the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, indicating that they gave birth to their young between early December and late June. Newborn pups were around 1 m long and 18 kg in weight and were covered in dark fur.
What became of this Caribbean seal? The only confirmed sightings of this animal in the United States in the 1900s were sightings of a few individuals in the Dry Tortugas between 1903 and 1906 and the killing of lone individuals by fishermen in Key West in 1906 and 1922. The only other accounts of seals from the 1900s were off the Yucatan Peninsula, one of which involved the killing of 200 seals in the Triangle Keys. Evidently the species had already declined to very low numbers by the early part of the twentieth century due to relentless hunting. The Caribbean and its environs also underwent intense development toward the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century. As there are no land predators in the Caribbean, or at least none big enough to tackle a fully grown monk seal, this animal had no innate fear of humans. Apparently it was a curious and nonaggressive beast, a fact that made it easy pickings for hunters, who killed them for their meat and blubber, which was rendered down into oil. The seals may also have had to compete with humans for their food as the burgeoning tourist trade placed greater and greater pressure on the Caribbean's marine resources. As the human population increased in the Caribbean and demands for ocean products outstripped local supplies, fishermen turned to increasingly remote areas, where seals had been forced to retreat. As the seals were seen as a traditional resource and unwelcome competitors for their fish, the fishermen likely persecuted the last remaining seals for their blubber and meat or in self-serving attempts to protect their catch. With the combination of habitat loss, hunting, and competition for food, the monk seal was pushed to extinction.
♦ Even though the last reliable sighting of the Caribbean monk seal was in 1952, people still report seeing this animal. Most of these sightings are reported by divers and fishermen, but it is highly likely that they are confusing the monk seal with hooded seals, which occasionally stray south from their northern range off Canada, or with California sea lions, which occasionally escape from navy training programs, traveling circuses, or captive facilities around the Caribbean.
♦ The Caribbean monk seal is one of three monk seal species. The other two species, the Mediterranean monk seal and the Hawaiian monk seal, are both listed as endangered species and are declining. Mediterranean monk seals now number around 500 individuals, and Hawaiian monk seals number about 1,200. Hawaii and the Mediterranean are both densely populated tourist destinations, and demands for beachfront property exert direct pressure on the habitats of both seal species. It will take a lot of public awareness and active protection to ensure the survival of these animals.
♦ The monk seals are a type of true seal, and they belong to a group of animals called the pinnipeds. The other members of this group are the eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and the walruses. These semiaquatic mammals are thought to have evolved from a bearlike ancestor around 23 million years ago.
Further Reading: Boyd, I., and M. Stanfield. "Circumstantial Evidence for the Presence of Monk Seals in the West Indies." Oryx 32 (1998): 310-16; Debrot, A. "A Review of Records of the Extinct
W. Indian Monk Seal." Marine Mammal Science 16 (2000): 834-37; Kenyon, K. "Caribbean Monk Seal Extinct." Journal of Mammalogy 58 (1977): 97-98; Mignucci-Giannoni, A., and D. Odell. "Tropical and Subtropical Records of Hooded Seals Dispel the Myth of Extant Caribbean Monk Seal." Bulletin of Marine Science 68 (2001): 47-58.
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