Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monk seals: the good, the bad, and the extinct

There were three species of monk seals, so widely separated that their kinship seemed bizarre - the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Hawaiian. Scientists have now figured out, using DNA from museum specimens of the Caribbean species (believed extinct sine 1952, though it likely lingered past that), that the Mediterranean, the original stock, should have the genus Monachus to itself, while the other two should be in a new genus, Neomonachus. The two surviving species are endangered - the Mediterranean critically so.

In the case of the Caribbean seal, in 1494,Columbus took note of this animal's abundance.  By 1911, humans had found and slaughtered the last known herd near the Yucatan peninsula.  The last definite record was from 1952, although sightings of one or two individuals were reported in 1964 and 1969.  A report of two seals off the southeastern Bahamas in 1974 might have marked the last time this species was encountered.  A 1980 expedition to this area produced no sightings, though fishermen surveyed in the 1990s indicated there was at least a possibility survivors had been sighted in recent years.     It is likely, however, that the species is now extinct.

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