The Mediterranean monk seal is a phocid or “true” seal, and is the rarest and most endangered of all pinnipeds. These seals belong to the same genus (Monachus) as the Hawaiian monk seals and Caribbean monk seals. All three of these monk seal species are considered to be either critically endangered (Hawaiian and Mediterranean) or extinct (Caribbean).1, 2, 3
Mediterranean monk seals have a fairly large, long, robust body, and can grow up to about 7-9 feet (2.2-2.8 m) in length and weigh 530-880 pounds (240-400 kg). Males can be slightly larger than females.1, 4Like other monk seals, this species has a distinctive head and face. The head is rounded with an extended broad “muzzle” and an almost-even “crown”. The face has relatively large wide-spaced eyes, upward opening nostrils, and fairly big whisker pads with long, light-colored, smooth whiskers. When compared to the body, the animal’s “fore-flippers” are relatively short with little claws and the “hind-flippers” are slender. Their coloration is variable, ranging from brownish to grayish, with the underside lighter than the dorsal-side giving the animal a counter-shaded appearance. There is also a pale patch located on the belly. Males are generally darker than females. Individuals have a pale mask on their face and a dark hood on their rounded head.1, 4, 5 Scratches, speckles, and scars may cover the body as well.
Mediterranean monk seals are a reclusive species that are generally found singly or in small groups of 2-3 individuals, but may aggregate at “haul-out” at sites in large loose social groups to “molt”. Haul-out sites may be along rocky shorelines, sea caves and open sandy beaches.6 Researchers suggest that these pinnipeds are more socially active in the water than on land.7
Mediterranean monk seals are capable of diving to at least 165-230 feet (50-70 m) to forage, and are able to hold their breath for 5-10 minutes. Their diet mainly consists of feeding on fish, rays, and cephalopods (e.g., octopus and squid).1, 7, 8
Mediterranean monk seals become sexually mature at 2-6 years of age. In order to mate with females, males may defend aquatic territories.9After successfully breeding, gestation for this species lasts about one year. Females give birth to pups year-round, but pupping generally peaks September-November.1, 6 Like other monk seals, this species has four retractable nipples for suckling their young. Newborn pups are about 2.5-4 feet (0.8-1.2 m) in length and weigh 35-45 pounds (15-20 kg) and have a sleek black “lanugo” coat with spots at birth.1 At 4-7 weeks, the black lanugo coat is replaced by a silver or gray coat. Mothers and pups develop a strong, important bond. Pups are generally weaned after 4 months, but sometimes stay with their mothers for up to 4 years.7 The estimated lifespan of this species in the wild is 20-30 years or
|530-880 pounds (240-400 kg)|
|up to about 7-9 feet (2.2-2.8 m)|
|brownish to grayish body with extended broad “muzzle,” relatively large wide-spaced eyes, upward opening nostrils, and fairly big whisker pads;
newborns have a black lanugo coat
|about 20-30 years|
|fish, rays, and cephalopods like squid and octopus|
|reclusive species that are generally found singly or in small groups of 2-3 individuals, but may aggregate at “haul-out” at sites in large loose social groups to “molt”|
Mediterranean monk seals can be found in warm temperate, subtropical and tropical waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the east Atlantic Ocean. They are considered shy of people and prefer isolated haul-out sites and sea caves or grottos where females give birth and nurse their young.
Mediterranean monk seals have an endemic widespread range throughout the Mediterranean Sea (Aegean, Black and Ionian Seas, as well as the Sea of Marmara), and the east Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Northwest Africa.7
Their historical distribution included the Azores, Morocco, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, Madeira, Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia.
They are not considered to have migration patterns, but may have home ranges.
There are estimated to be less than 600 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and they are considered to be at great risk of extinction.1, 2 There are two separate and distinct populations:
- a northeastern Mediterranean group that inhabits the Aegean and Ionian Seas around Greece and Turkey
- a northeastern Atlantic group that inhabits the island of Madeira and the coast of Mauritania/Western Sahara in North Africa.1, 13, 14, 15
The largest concentration of Mediterranean monk seals is currently in and around Greece in both the Aegean and Ionian Seas.12 Vagrant individuals still occur in Italy. The conservation of these populations has become more complex due to reproductive isolation and political jurisdictions.9 Mediterranean monk seals used to be found–but are now considered locally extinct–in the Azores and the Black Sea.
- targeted and killed for their oil, meat, hides, and to reduce competition for fish and cephalopods
- entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris.16, 17, 18, 19
- displacement from habitat due to coastal development (Reeves et al., 2002)
- human interactions from fishing, coastal development, and other exploitation activities20, 21
- storms and heavy surf have had significant effects on the mortality of newborn and young pups that are nursed in caves.12, 15
- viral epidemics (e.g. morbillivirus) or naturally occurring phytoplankton-based paralytic toxins that have caused mass mortalities,22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28
- contaminants from industrial pollution29, 30
- inbreeding among sub-populations7, 9
The National Marine Park of Alonnisos in the Northern Sporades islands of Greece was established in 1992 as a protected area for monk seals.
This species is protected in its range by various laws administered by the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean. The import/export of samples, parts, or live animals into/out of the United States is regulated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
- Johnson et al., 2006
- IUCN, 2007
- NOAA/NMFS, 2008
- Samaranch and Gonzalez, 2000
- Jefferson et al., 2002
- Shirihai and Jarrett, 2006
- Jefferson et al., 2008
- Sergeant et al., 1978
- Reeves et al., 2002
- Forcada, 2000
- Forcada and Aguilar, 2000
- Dendrinos et al., 2007a and 2007b
- Güçlüsoy et al., 2004
- CMS/UNEP, 2005
- Pires et al., 2008
- Panou et al., 1993
- Androukaki et al.,1999
- Güçlüsoy and Savas, 2003
- Güçlüsoy, 2007
- Johnson and Lavigne, 1998
- Johnson and Lavigne, 1999
- Osterhaus et al., 1997
- Harwood, 1998
- Hernandez et al., 1998
- Osterhaus et al., 1998
- Forcada et al., 1999
- van der Bildt et al., 1999
- Toplu et al., 2007
- Borrel et al., 1997
- Borrell et al., 2007
- Monk seals’ scientific name Monachus monachus is derived from the Greek word “monachus,” which means “monk-like, solitary.” The “monk” description may refer to the dark colored “hood” on their heads.
- Mediterranean monk seals are believed to one of the origins of the mermaid myth.
- Mediterranean monk seals have the shortest hair of all the pinnipeds.