Spotlight on Monk Seals
Winter 2016-2017

Year of the Monk Seal 2017 emblem

Celebrating 10 years of dedicated monk seal recovery, an increase in the population, and 12 months of monk seal fun!

2017 is the Year of the Monk Seal!

2017 will mark a decade since the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan was revised and released, and in those 10 years we have had some remarkable successes: about 30% of monk seals alive today are alive due to direct life-saving interventions from our program (such as disentanglements or hook removals), or descended from a female monk seal that benefitted from an intervention. Additionally, NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program completed its annual population assessment in January and is excited to announce that the monk seal population has increased an average of 3% annually for the last three years; the population now numbers approximately 1,400 seals, up from 1,300 in 2015. To celebrate this population increase, the past decade of dedicated conservation work, and to build momentum for the decade to come, we have declared 2017 to be the Year of the Monk Seal!

The Year was officially kicked off on January 24th at the Waikīkī Aquarium, where the Recovery Plan was signed 10 years ago. NOAA's monk seal team was joined by partners from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Coast Guard, and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources to sign a declaration that recognizes 10 years of partnership and aspire to build on this work in the decade to come. To commemorate the Year of the Monk Seal, we will be hosting a series of fun events, educational opportunities, and other activities over the course of the next 12 months in conjunction with our agency and NGO partners.

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The population increase is the result of years of hard work by NOAA and our many partners. Importantly, while it is incredibly exciting news, it is only one milestone on a long path to full monk seal recovery. We embrace this hopeful news as an opportunity to reinvigorate our efforts and work even harder to continue to push this population in the right direction!

Molting Male Monk Seals

Monk seals go through an annual catastrophic molt, meaning they shed all of their fur and the top layer of skin once a year. The molt also sheds the algae that grows on seals' fur and can make them appear green. As you can imagine, this molting process is not entirely fun for the seals and makes it difficult for them to spend a lot of time in the water. They may be found on land for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks while they complete their molt. Around fall/winter, after peak breeding season, we start to see a lot of male monk seals molting, while adult females will typically molt later in the year after they pup. So if you see a molting seal this time of year, there's a good chance it is a male. The disgruntled looking gent in the photo to the left is RN44, photographed on Kaua‘i. Remember to be extra cautious and give these guys plenty of space!

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Monk Seal Science Happenings

#MonkSeal: Can social media inform monk seal conservation?

Mark Sullivan in the NWHI.
 NMFS permit 18786.
Mark Sullivan in the NWHI. NMFS permit 18786.

Mark Sullivan, Emergency Response Research Associate with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research and the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, is exploring how public posts to social media platforms may help monk seal research and conservation. By analyzing posts on the media sharing and social networking service Instagram, Mark was able to extract pertinent data on monk seal identification, location, ecology, health and behavior, and if/how people are interacting with seals. Specifically, Mark investigated how Instagram could: (1) expand our normal sightings data set, (2) help categorize type and severity of human interactions, (3) provide an early warning of concerning seal behaviors, and (4) help assess public perceptions of seals.

Searching the keyword #monkseal revealed a total of 2,392 public posts in one year alone. Seals were individually identifiable in 396 of these posts and represented 27.5% of the main Hawaiian Island (MHI) subpopulation. Mark also documented 426 human-seal interaction events ranging from close approaches to actual physical interactions. In addition to gaining useful information about MHI seal ecology and behavior, Mark also took the opportunity to alert the public about seals of concern and solicit feedback to aid NOAA's monk seal emergency response. This relatively new tool has the potential to yield considerable amounts of data, and upcoming developments will streamline data collection, utilization, and sharing. Mark hopes to summarize these first steps in a scientific paper later this year. Science and technology continue to evolve, and it behooves wildlife programs to take advantage of progressive and broadly inclusive tools like social media for the benefit of species conservation.

What DNA Can (and Can't) Tell Us about Monk Seals

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program is currently hosting visiting scientist Nichole Mihnovets, a recent PhD graduate from Columbia University whose dissertation work focused on monk seal genetics. Genetics can provide a powerful tool for looking at the diversity within populations, tracking long-term patterns of movement between populations and figuring out which individuals may be related. Nicole's work built on previous genetics studies and showed that monk seals have relatively little genetic diversity. In other words, there's not a lot of variation from individual seal to seal, or between seals in one place versus another. This sort of low diversity can be expected of animals like monk seals, which may have existed at small population sizes and gone through boom and bust cycles for many generations.

Given the remoteness of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), one might expect that monk seals at each island or atoll would be quite isolated and cut off from each other. But measures of gene flow (indicators that animals move from one location to another to interbreed) reveal that is not the case and there is actually high connectivity among sites in the NWHI. None of the sites appeared very isolated from one another, though there is a slight gradient in gene flow, with seals at more northern sites (Kure, Midway, Pearl and Hermes Reef) exchanging genes more frequently with each other than those at the southern sites. This finding corresponds with results of our field data which has detected more inter-atoll movements between nearby sites. Nicole has also been using genetic data to try to reconstruct monk seal family trees. Much like in court dramas on TV, wildlife geneticists examine the match between a seal pup's DNA and that of various potential parents.

This work is ongoing and the low genetic diversity of monk seals presents some challenges (it is often hard to distinguish which of several possible parents is most likely), but there have been some interesting findings so far. In at least one case, we detected an incorrect birth record: the DNA evidence showed that the female observed with a pup during one season couldn't possibly have been its mother. In a few cases, DNA evidence was able to identify both the mother and father of a pup. This is exciting news, since little is typically known about paternity in monk seals. We look forward to publication of all the final results from Nicole's genetics research.

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About NOAA's Species in the Spotlight

The goal of the Species in the Spotlight initiative is to marshal resources and partnerships focused on saving eight priority threatened and endangered species.

Did You Know...?

Volunteers from the Hawai‘i Marine Mammal Alliance perform outreach and education during monk seal haulouts on O‘ahu. Between June and December of 2017, they received 1,445 sightings reports, spent 3,675 hours on the beach sharing information with community members and tourists about monk seals, and spoke to 12,806 members of the public. That's a lot of folks who now know more about our native seal. Kudos to the volunteers for their dedication to monk seals!

Upcoming Events

Family Day at Bishop Museum, February 12, 9am 3pm.

A day of family-friendly science and environmental activities. Reduced admission is $5 all day for kama'aina and military with valid ID.

Waikīkī Aquarium 113th Anniversary

Sunday, March 26, 2017

New Seal on the Block

While we know almost all of the seals that live in the main Hawaiian Islands, newcomers do arrive from areas such as Ni‘ihau where we don't have a complete seal roster. This subadult female became a regular at Larsens Beach on Kaua‘i in 2016 and is identified by a lower lip scar that is most likely the result of a hook injury.

Photo by G. Langley, NMFS permit 18786. Photo by G. Langley, NMFS permit 18786.

Monk Seals in the Media

Year of the Monk Seal and Population Increase

More monk seals is big news! Below are links to just a few of the many stories that were shared after the increase was announced.

Need more information?

For more information on the Species in the Spotlight effort, please visit here or contact Angela Amlin, HMS Recovery Coordinator Charles Littnan, HMS Research Program