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(Hermann, 1779) - Mediterranean monk seal

Distinctive Characteristics

Adult mediterranean monk seals are robust, with short flippers, a long fusiform body, and a proportionately small head. The head is wide and somewhat flat, with the eyes spaced fairly widely. The muzzle is particularly wide, but compressed from top to bottom. The mystacial pads are large, fleshy, and extend beyond the nostrils. The nostrils are situated at the top of the muzzle unlike any other North Atlantic phocid species. The vibrissae are smooth and unbeaded. Females have 4 retractable teats.

Coloration is variable throughout all the now-isolated subpopulations. Mostanimals are dark brown above and paler below, the colours separated by either a gradual blending or a sharp demarcation. Others are black overall, or very pale silvery white with variable darker blotching. Some animals have a large white belly patch; other have white blotching elsewhere on the body. Pups are born in a woolly blackish coat, sometimes with white spots and irregular blotches, and often with a yellowish white patch below. The moult of pups to a coat of silver-grey above and lighter below occurs at 4 to 6 weeks. Little is known about the seasonality of the moult.

The dental formula is I 2/2, C 1/1, PC 5/5.

Can be confused with

Mediterranean monk seals do not regularly share their range with any other pinniped. The nearest regularly occuring species are harbour and grey seals, and hooded seals, all of which occur farther north in the Atlantic. However, Mediterranean monk seals can be readily distinguished from all of these species by their lack of spots, characteristics of the head and muzzle, smooth vibrissae, and 4 mammary teats.

Size

Adults are up to 2.8 m in length, and weigh 250 to 400 kg. Newborns are 80 to 120 cm and 15 to 26 kg.

Geographical Distribution

Mediterranean monk seals are found in the Mediterranean, Aegian, and Black seas, and along northwestern Africa to about 34°N. Their presence on islands far offshore demonstrates at least occasional offshore ventures. On land, they choose rocky coastlines, with a preference for sea caves and grottos that are generally inaccessible from land (and sometimes have only submarine entrances). In West Africa, they come ashore on open beaches.

Biology and Behaviour

This seal is considered nonmigratory, spending most of its time within a very limited home range. Breeding occurs much of the year, but mostly from August through October.

Mediterranean monk seals are among the least social of pinnipeds when ashore; they are presumed to be most socially active in the water, where the only copulation ever observed was recorded. Little information is available on diving, but most dives are thought to be shallow, less than 70m, and short, less than 10 minutes.

The diet consists of octopus, at least 1 type of ray, and a variety of fishes. Large fish that cannot be swallowed whole are brought to the surface and shaken apart.

Exploitation

Mediterranean monk seals are highly endangered and their chances for long-term survival are considered poor. They are widely scattered in small groups with little exchange of individuals. These seals have no doubt been taken for food and skins ever since the region has been inhabited by people. There is no record of a systematic commercial hunt, but persistent hunting, and recent poaching in this heavily populated region has likely led to this seal's precarious position. Overfishing, pollution, and development of much of this region are suspected to be significant contributors to the decline as well. It is feared that if Mediterranean monk seals were exposed to a disease like that which decimated populations of harbour and grey seals in northern Europe, it could spell the end of this species.

IUCN Status

Endangered.

Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus)