The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with less than 600 animals estimated remaining. This is one of three species of monk seal, which also includes the Hawaiian (also critically endangered, and resides in waters off the northwestern and main Hawaiian Islands) and the Caribbean, which is now extinct - sadly, the last record of a live Caribbean monk seal was in 1952.
There are two reasons that monk seals received their name - they have folds of skin on their head that resemble a monk's hood, and they are also relatively solitary animals, spending most of their time individually or in small groups rather than large colonies.
Mediterranean monk seals are 7-8 feet long and weigh about 650 pounds. Females are slightly smaller than males. Pups are black to dark brown with a white belly patch when born. As they age, adult males become black with a white belly patch while females are brown or gray with a lighter underside. The Mediterranean monk seal's fur is the shortest of all the pinnipeds.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Phocidae
- Genus: Monachus
- Species: monachus
Habitat and Distribution:
Mediterranean monk seals may be found in caves along coastal cliffs. They may access these caves via underwater entrances. The caves provide refuge from disturbances such as humans and boats. When populations were larger, more Mediterranean monk seals were found along sandy beaches and rocky coasts rather than caves.
The two main remaining populations of Mediterranean monk seals live in the northeastern Mediterranean and in the northeast Atlantic off the northwestern coast of Africa. Click here for a range map. This is considerably smaller than their original range, which stretched along the Mediterranean Sea, Africa's Atlantic coast, and the islandsof Cape Verde, the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores.
Females and males are mature at 4-6 years of age. Mediterranean monk seals mate in the fall, and in the water. After mating, females give birth on sandy beaches or in caves after a 10-11 month gestation period. Pups weigh about 30 pounds at birth, and nurse for 6 weeks. During this time, the mother stays with them on land, but after weaning, the pup is left to fend for itself and the mother returns to the ocean.
The lifespan of the Mediterranean monk seal is thought to be about 30 years.
Mediterranean monk seals are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Monk seals were honored in ancient Greece. Seeing a monk seals was considered "a sign of good fortune" (Monachus Guardian). Later, they were hunted for meat, fur and oil but not in large numbers until the Roman Era, and it was hunting during this time that started the population's steep decline.
Current pressures on Mediterranean monk seals include coastal development (contributing to loss of habitat and increased human disturbance), fishermen and operators of fish farms who kill the seals, entanglement in fishing gear, loss off food availability and disease.
What Is Being Done to Help the Mediterranean Monk Seal?
Work is being done to help this species before it goes extinct. This includes studies on Mediterrean monk seals, promotion of marine reserves, education and awareness efforts and seal rescue and rehabilitation programs.
References and Further Reading:
- Aguilar, A. & Lowry, L. 2008. Monachus monachus. IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. . Accessed March 31, 2012.
- Benton, M. 2000. Monachus monachus. Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 31, 2012.
- monachus-guardian.org. Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus). Accessed March 31, 2012.