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A Sign… Sealed and Delivered

October 21, 2013
seal sleeping

A Hawaiian monk seal rests on a Kalaupapa National Historical Park beach.    -Photo by S.Lee

The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. Its Hawaiian name, ‘Īlio holo i ka uaua translates to “dog running in rough seas”.  Along with fewer than 600 remaining Mediterranean monk seals (M. monachus), Hawaii’s seals are the last of the world’s monk seals (a third species, the Caribbean monk seal, is extinct).

The Hawaiian monk seals’ dwindling population of about 1,200 individuals has experienced a continuous decline of about 4% annually in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Conversely, the population of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands has seen a gradual increase since the mid 1980’s, and is now estimated to be about 150 individuals.

The beaches at Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokaʻi Island are one of the premier pupping sites in the main Hawaiian Islands. Since 1997, there have been 78 monk seals born on Molokaʻi, and all but one of those were born in Kalaupapa. This year we welcomed a record number of births… 10 newborns !

Kalaupapa NHP works in conjunction with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers on efforts to better understand monk seal behavior and long-term movement patterns. The NPS Inventory & Monitoring Program also contributes to the effort through the monitoring of many aspects of the marine realm… from coral reef health to water quality. The health of the habitat has profound implications with the monk seals’ wellbeing.

Once born, a jet-black monk seal pup feeds on the nutrient rich milk from its mother for about 6 -7 weeks. If we are able to locate the placenta soon after birth, it is frozen for DNA analysis. Researchers have demonstrated that there is extremely low genetic diversity in Hawaiian monk seals, most likely due to long-term population size restriction. This has the potential to hinder the overall genetic fitness of the monk seal species.

seal tag

Seals can be identified by tags on their flippers.

After weaned from its mother, the plump pup is usually bleach tagged for visual identification. Bleach tags come off with the seal’s annual molt, a process in which it sheds its outer coating for a new one. Later, when the opportunity presents itself, researchers tag the seal’s rear flippers with a red coded tag for long-term tracking. Such research furthers our understanding of the seals’ behavior and habitat use, with the ultimate goal of improving conservation management strategies and fostering their proliferation.

–Sylvester (Sly) Lee, NPS


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