Hawaiian Monk Seals
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Monachus schauinslandi
HABITAT: Remote, uninhabited islands and atolls
LIFE HISTORY: Mothers stay with pups continuously for six weeks after birth and do not hunt, shedding up to 300 pounds. Average seal dives 51 times a day, up to depths of over 500 feet.
THREATS: Human disturbance; overfishing; entanglement in commercial fishing gear
RANGE: Northwestern Hawaiian islands
CURRENT POPULATION: 1,200-1,500
This rare Hawaiian mammal may have gotten its name from its solitary lifestyle or from the folds of flesh around its neck, which resemble a monk's cowl. Native Hawaiians called it ilio holo i ka uaua, or "the dog that goes in rough water." Hawaiian monk seals are literally as old as the hills—as a species, they've been around for 15 million years.
Like other fur seals, they were slaughtered in huge numbers in the early 19th century. Today, only about 1,200 to 1,500 are left, hiding out on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as far from human intervention as they can get. The seals are extremely sensitive to human presence. Mothers abandon preferred birthing sites and sometimes even their pups when they sense human disturbance. Overfishing may have led to the extinction of their cousins, the Caribbean monk seals; the same danger exists today in Hawaii, where the seals get entangled in fishing gear and may be outcompeted by fishermen in searching for food.
The seal has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1976, giving conservationists a tool to help protect it from competition with local fisheries. Despite successful court battles, the Hawaiian monk seal is still considered the most endangered U.S. marine mammal.
RELATED NRDC PAGES
Underwater Worlds: The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
Photos: Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park © Getty Images; Hawaiian monk seal © USFWS; Hibiscus brackenridgei © D. Herbst, USFWS; Hawaiian goose © John and Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS
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