Mediterranean Monk Seals: Characteristics, habitat and more

The mediterranean monk seals or Monachus monachus in scientific terms, belong to the group of true seals, and are unluckily the most endangered true seals species.

Brief Review Of The Mediterranean Monk Seals

In ancient Greece, the Mediterranean monk seals were placed under the protection of Poseidon and Apollo because they showed a great love for the sea and the Sun. One of the first coins, coined around the year 500 bc, represented the head of a monk seal, and the creatures were immortalized in the writings of Homer, Plutarch, and Aristotle. For fishermen and seafarers, observing the animals that flutter in the waves was considered an omen of good fortune. Humans used to hunt mediterranean monk seals to satisfy some of their basic needs, which they usually found on  the skin, fat and meat of these creatures, However in such times  they were not killed in a number large enough to jeopardize their existence as a species. Due to their entrusted nature, they were easy prey for hunters and fishermen, who used to employ sticks, spears and nets to hunt them.  Their skin was commonly used to make tents, which were frequently employed to provide protection against the most hostile elements of nature, especially rays. The manufacture of clothes and footwear was another common use of their coats. As for the fat of their bodies, it was commonly in oil lamps and tallow candles.

Since it was known that these creatures used to have a placid dream, it was thought that putting their right flipper under a pillow, was useful for curing insomnia. Several evidences suggest that the population of this species declined dramatically during the Roman Era. After the Roman empire´s fall, the reduction in their consumption apparently allowed the population of Mediterranean monk seals to increase. The commercial exploitation of this species peaked again in certain areas of the middle ages, causing the decline of its population again.  This caused changes in the behavior of this species, which began to move away from rocks and beaches, and sought refuge along inaccessible shores and cliffs and in caves (often with underwater entrances).

Origin of their Names

Johann (Jean) Hermann (December 31, 1738 – October 4, 1800), who was a French physician and naturist, suggested the name of «Monk seals” in 1779, when he published the first modern scientific description of this species, based on observations of a captive specimen during a traveling show in Strasbourg. Hermann suggested to name this creature Münchs-Robbe (Phoca monachus), because it was similar to an animal known locally as moine (monk) in Marseilles, which he concluded that it was of the same species. He noted with irony that it resembled a monk (the shape of its head and its shoulders in the shape of a scapula) when the seal arched on the edge of the pool, so he considered it a very appropriate name.

Mediterranean Monk Seals: Main Characteristics

The mediterranean monk seals are characterized by a body with a rounded head and short limbs, with small fingernails. In addition, their body is very robust, though small and their hair is very dark, usually brown or gray on their back and light or white shades on their abdomen. The males usually have a darker fur than the females, so they are said to have a slight sexual dimorphism. However, coloring usually varies in the same individual with age.

Size and weight

Adults can reach between 2 and 2.8 meters of total length and weigh between 240 and 300 kg. Newborns can measure between 88-103cm and weigh between 15 and 26 kg approximately. Females are slightly smaller than males.

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Population of Mediterranean Monk Seals

There used to be large number of specimens of these seals along and across the Mediterranean Sea, but over the years their  population  has significantly decreased due to different factors. There are no specific reports in relation to the number of specimens left in the world but they are classified in the high risk extinction range by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is speculated that there are only about 600 of these creatures in the world.

mediterranean monk seals: let´s take care of them

Mediterranean Monk Seals´ Habitat and Distribution

These creatures were distributed in the past, throughout the Mediterranean coast, including the Black Sea and southwards, on the Atlantic coast and the islands of north-west Africa.  However, due to the threats that they have suffered and continue to suffer, their distribution has changed and their populations are located fragmented in three zones nowadays.  In the eastern Mediterranean is where the largest populations are located especially on the islands of the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea, as well as on the Turkey´s shores, Albania, Croatia and Greece.

In the western Mediterranean, they can be found in Algeria and Morocco, and in the North Atlantic in Cape Blanco between Mauritania and the Western Sahara and also in Madeira. Their habitat includes pelagic zones, small islands and coastal areas but always in areas protected from the access of their terrestrial predators. It is restricted to areas where there are caves with entrances from the sea and in small beaches protected by cliffs or by high tide. They usually breed in caves, especially in those that have beaches inside of them.

What do  Mediterranean Monk Seals Feed On?

Their diet is not very varied with respect to other seals, since they consume octopus, squid, and a wide variety of fish such as tuna. Moreover sardines and salmon and even eels and lobsters can be part of their diet too. Mainly they like to capture their preys in the day to a depth not greater than 300 meters. Since they are considered an endangered species, food for them is not limited, although their biggest competition is represented by fishermen who usually roam their localities. The Mediterranean monk seals swallow their prey instead of chewing them, because their teeth are not powerful enough to crush them.

How DoMediterranean Monk Seals Reproduce?

In terms of  reproduction, it´s   worth mentioning that this process is somewhat peculiar, since they tend to reproduce in a hidden way, in caves where other animals, and especially humans, cannot disturb them. Scientists have suggested that they are  polygynous since males are very territorial when they mate with females. Although there is no a specific breeding season, since the births take place throughout the year, there is a peak during the months of October and November.

According to various studies the offsprings´ rate survival is low; just under 50% survive the first two months of the beginning of their molting, and most mortalities occur in the first two weeks. This fact is associated with mortality caused by severe storms, swells and high tides. However, due to the small population of this species, it is speculated that there are also many matings between sister offspring, which affects the high mortality rate.

Puppies make their first contact with water 2 weeks after birth and are weaned around 18 weeks of age. Most Mediterranean monk seals reach maturity at 4 years of age. The gestation period lasts about a year, although it is common for the seals of the Cabo Blanco colony, to have a gestation period that lasts a little over a year. It is believed that these seals live between 20-30 years when they are in their natural habitats.

Common Behavior of the Mediterranean Monk Seals.

They are considered migratory species although they don´t travel large distances and they like to stay within the area where they develop or inhabit. Unlike other seal species, Mediterranean monk seals are always in large groups of up to 20 individuals, but this only happens when they are underwater. When they are on the surface, they tend to divide and be alone, which represents for many specialists   their resting moment. They communicate with each other with high-pitched sounds that are mostly played underwater and don´t usually submerge more than 70 meters deep.

Mediterranean monk seals split their time between being in the water and staying on the surface where they often feel more comfortable. They are mainly diurnal species, since they usually use the nights to carry out a prolonged rest in comparison with other types of seal. Their contact with humans is a bit limited, since they prefer not to be in contact with them, although there are records that in previous years before being classified as an endangered species, there was a good interaction between both species.

These seals are also very shy  and went from giving birth on the land where any villager or tourist could see them, to take refuge in caves to be able to have the mind´s peace of having their offspring without any type of threats.

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Differences Between the Mediterranean Monk Seals and the Hawaiian Monk Seals.

Both species are known to have many similarities to each other, and both belong to the family of the true seals. They have similar characteristics in terms of their skin tone and their mobility on both land and Sea. Let’s know more about these Species.

As for their anatomies.

Both species have slight differences, since the Mediterranean monk seal is a little smaller compared to the Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi in scientific terms), which can measure up to3.5 meters. The skin of both species has similar hues, but the Hawaiians have a slightly more grayish hue at birth, which is darkening over time.

Distribution.

Both species are distributed in completely different areas since the specific distribution of Hawaiian monk Seals is located northwest of the Hawaii Archipelago. In terms of habitat they share the fact that both of them like tropical waters, but the Hawaiian monk seals usually carry out long travels (migratory behavior) to get their food.

 

Behavior.

Both are considered as species that develop in loneliness, although the Hawaiian monk seals can adapt to contact with other species and the human beings without any inconvenience, as long as they don´t  feel or perceive any kind of threat. The Mediterranean monk seal is usually a diurnal species, and at this time of day they look for their food, resting later during the night. As for the Hawaiian monk seals, they hunt their prey in nocturnal hours in order to obtain their food more easily and during the day they rest for long periods of time.

Reproduction.

The reproduction of both species is totally different. The Mediterranean monk seals commonly mate and give birth to their offspring in caves near the surface. On the contrary, the Hawaiian monk seals mate and have their offsprings under water.

 

Main Threats of the Mediterranean Monk Seals

As for their main threats we can mention the followings:

  • The deterioration of their habitat due to the coastal development, including disturbance caused by tourism and recreational sailing. These seals are very sensitive to the human factor, which makes them migrate to increasingly marginal and inadequate habitats, such as caves, where puppies are vulnerable to storms and can be washed away and drowned.
  • Their deliberate killing by fishermen and fish farm operators, which consider these creatures a threat to their nets and also «steal» their fish, especially in depleted coastal fishing grounds
  • Accidental entanglements in fishing nets which generates an extreme physical fatigue that can even cause their death.
  • Unforeseen or stochastic events such as disease epidemics, toxic algae or oil spills can also threaten the survival of the monk Seals.
  • Their hunting (in the Past) to take advantage of their skin and fat, represented a big threat for this species, and in fact it was what caused the drastic reduction of the population of mediterranean monk seals.

Conservation Of  The Mediterranean Monk Seals

The mediterranean monk seal is in critical danger, with a world population below 600 individuals. It is estimated that there were 2 times this number 20 years ago. The number of sexually mature seals is thought to be less than 250. The conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal has been underway since the late 70s, but progress has been irregular and slow. The Chronic financial deficiencies, either by state or private sources, have aggravated the problem. On-site conservation efforts are focused on the establishment of marine protected areas, non-fishing areas, rescue and rehabilitation of orphan and wounds seals and the people´s education and awareness.

Scientific studies are being carried out to understand more about the biology and behavior of this species, whose results can play a key role for the on-site conservation goals. To date, marine protected areas for this species have been established in just a fraction of the areas that scientific opinion considers necessary: on the desert islands of Madeira, in the Sporades Islands and the Karpathos islands in Greece, on the shores of the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea of Turkey, and on the coast of the Phoques (Cabo Blanco) in Western Sahara. Taking into account the feeding and reproduction movements of monk seals among the remaining colonies, a consensus of scientific opinion considers that a network of well-managed and monitored food reserves is essential for the survival of this species.

Although ex -situ conservation measures have been proposed on several occasions, such as captive breeding and translocation, these initiatives have been abandoned and/or neglected, despite the strong criticism of the scientific and conservation communities of this species. So sensitive is the Mediterranean monk seal to human disturbance, that ex situ schemes of this type are seen in some sectors as an additional threat for them, and in fact there is no evidence that this species is successfully reproduced in captivity. Scientists also question whether there is a single colony large enough to withstand the elimination of donor animals for the purpose of translocation or captive breeding without jeopardizing their own viability.

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Economic Importance of the Mediterranean Monk Seals.

As in the case of the leopard seals  , the fur of the Mediterranean monk seals was used for a long time for manufacturing coats and handbags, and was considered as paramount raw material for the fashion industry. However, this practice has declined almost entirely, due to the critical state of extinction risk of these seals.

The fat in their bodies was also commonly used by the people in the area where they live, because according to the local doctors  it provided great health benefits. This practice has also been diminished by the critical state of conservation of this species. Last and rare, the hunting of these seals was carried out to consume and distribute their meat in a commercial way in different world markets and was included in the diet of many populations that are around the Mediterranean Sea.

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