The Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) is another example of a marine mammal that is no longer with us. The species was exterminated in the first half of the 20th century, with the last confirmed sighting being in 1952. Habitat destruction might have played a part in their demise, although the main reason appears to have been uncontrolled hunting.
The Caribbean monk seal used to be plentiful in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the western Atlantic and, as the name suggests, the Caribbean Sea. Their range extended from the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina right down to the north east side of South America. The events leading to their eventual extinction began with the arrival of the first Europeans in the area at the end of the 15th century.
Caribbean monk seals inhabited temperate to tropical waters. Although they were not creatures of the open ocean, they didn’t often venture onto the mainland, preferring isolated islands when they needed to come out of the water. This might have been an adaptation to avoid large land predators but it didn’t help the species avoid humans.
Human hunters killed the seals in huge numbers for their pelts and oil. Later, they were also persecuted as a perceived threat to fish stocks. A significant number of seals were killed and stuffed for exhibition in museums or caught alive for zoos. At the same time as the seals were being slaughtered in their thousands, their habitat was being degraded and polluted by the developments springing up along the coast. According to Animal Diversity Web, loss of suitable habitat was the last straw.
The last sightings occurred in the first years of the 1950s. By the 1960s, it was suspected the species was extinct. In 2008, it was officially confirmed with the removal of Caribbean monk seals from the US Endangered Species Act. Occasional reports of sightings still occur, but these are almost certainly misidentification of other seal species, such as the hooded seal. Exhaustive scientific surveys have found no trace of Caribbean monk seals in their former habitat.
Monk Seal Distribution Today
The Caribbean monk seal has gone but two relatives remain. Both are critically endangered and may end up going the same way if current population trends continue. The survivors of the genus Monachus are the Mediterranean monk seal and the Hawaiian monk seal. Their range is now restricted to small areas of, respectively, the Mediterranean (and North Atlantic) and around the islands of Hawaii. The major threats to both species are overfishing, habitat destruction and disturbance, death as bycatch in fishing nets, pollution and deliberate persecution. The International Union for the Conservation of Natures notes that Hawaiian monk seals are also threatened by military activities in the area and may be vulnerable to diseases carried by domestic pets.
- NOAA Fisheries -- Office of Protected Resources: Caribbean Monk Seal
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Monachus tropicalis
- Animal Diversity Web: Monachus tropicalis
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Monachus monachus
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: Monachus schauinslandi
Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.