Status: Critically endangered.
Size: 9 to 12 ft. in length, weight 660 to 700 lbs.
Characteristics: Social, active by day.
Offspring: One, every other year.
Predators: Killer whales, sharks, man.
· The Mediterranean monk seal was first described by Aristotle in third century B.C.
· The monk seal gets its name from the Greek “monakhos” meaning monk or solitary one.
· This seal is on the list of the 20 most endangered species in the world.
· One of the first Greek coins, minted around 500 BC, depicted the head of a monk seal.
· There are fewer than 250 Mediterranean monk seals existing in the wild today.
· The Caribbean monk seal became extinct during the latter half of the last century.
· Seals who are disturbed by humans or boats make sounds like wounded dogs and may even howl.
Adult Mediterranean monk seals live in colonies of about 20 individuals while in water, but while on land they prefer to remain solitary. They have brown, black or silver fur, with a white or off-white belly. They stay in shallow water near the coast and feed on all kinds of fish including sardines, tuna, crustaceans, octopus and eels. Monk seals are extremely skillful swimmers and divers, able to outmanoeuvre even a shark. When a predator is approaching in the water, monk seals communicate this information to each other with a high-pitched sound. At one time, monk seals were cherished by fishermen and locals, who believed they brought good luck. Monk seals were placed under the protection of Apollo and Poseidon in ancient Greece, for their love of the sun and the sea. In recent years, however, human overpopulation has led to a number of problems for these seals. Fishermen, who’ve noticed a decline in fish, blame it on the handful of seals who still inhabit the Mediterranean, rather than realizing there are too many fishermen, trying to catch too many fish for too many people. This has led to the fishermen killing the seals until they’re nearly extinct. As well, seals get caught in fishing nets, and succumb to the high quantity of pollution caused by human waste being spilled out into the sea by sewage treatment plants, as well as industrial plants. More than 140 million people live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and the numbers go up during tourist season. The large numbers of boats that frequent the sea have also been responsible for a number of seal deaths, as they run over the animals or collide with them. The human population explosion is especially detrimental for female monk seals, who have long pregnancies of eleven months, and will spontaneously abort if disturbed during that time. If the female has a nursing pup, she may become so upset that her milk stops, often leading to the pup’s death.
Monk seals were once a familiar sight as they sunned on the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean. They can now be found only in secluded areas, as far from humans as they can get. Years of persecution have caused their numbers to dwindle to frightening lows, so that only handfuls live in isolated regions of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the northwest African coast.
Reproduction rates for monk seals are slow, because females begin breeding only at the age of four and have a pup only once every other year at most. Pregnant females find an isolated spot to give birth and remain there for up to six weeks while the pup nurses. She doesn’t leave the pup even to find food for herself, and lives off stored body fat instead. Pups are born with black woolly coats that moult at four to six weeks. A new, silvery gray coat grows in and darkens as the pup ages. The bond between the mother and pup is strong, and they may remain together for three years, even if the mother gives birth to a new pup in the meantime. Monk seals have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years.