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Overview

Distribution

Global Range: (Zero (no occurrences believed extant)) Historical range is not completely known, but it likely extended from the southern Gulf of Mexico to the Lesser Antilles, and north to southeastern Georgia and south to northern Panama and northern South America (east to Guyana) (see Adam 2004 for a fairly detailed map). Last reliable report of this species was from Serranilla Bank, Colombia, in 1952. Last reliable U.S. record was in 1922, when a seal was killed near Key West, Florida (see Adam 2004).

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Monachus tropicalis has officially been declared extinct. Historically, the range of Caribbean monk seals was in the tropical waters of the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the Greater and Lesser Antillies, around the Yucatan Penninsula, and around offshore islets and atolls. Currently, unconfirmed sightings are most common in Northern Haiti and North-east Jamaica. It is the only pinniped ever known to exist in the Caribbean region. The last recorded sighting of M. tropicalis in the United States was in 1932 off the coast of Texas and a small group was sighted on Seranilla Bank, between Honduras and Jamaica, in 1952.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native )

  • Boyd, I., M. Stanfield. Oct. 1998. Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies. Oryx, 32: 310-316.
  • Debrot, A. Oct. 2000. A Review of Records of the Extinct W. Indian Monk Seal. Marine Mammal Science, 16 (4): 834-837.
  • IUCN, 2008. "Monachus tropicalis" (On-line). 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed October 07, 2008 at http://redlist.org/details/13655.
  • Knudsen, P. Oct. 1977. The Case of the Missing Monk Seal. Natural History, 86 (1): 78-83.
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National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Absent

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Physical Description

Morphology

Caribbean monk seals were known to be beautiful animals. They had brown pelage, lightly frosted with gray, fading to a pale yellow on the stomach. They had hoodlike rolls of fat that surround their necks. Their hair was very short and stiff. The nails on the anterior digits were well developed, and nails on the posterior digits were simple. Their soles and palms were naked. They have also had 4, rather than 2 mammary glands. Their dental formula was 2/1, 1/1, 5/5. It is likely that there was sexual dimorphism, with males reaching up to 200 kg in some accounts. Females were likely smaller, ranging from 70-140 kg, although there is disparity in records. Infants were born with coal-black pelage.

Range mass: 70 to 200 kg.

Range length: 220 to 240 cm.

Average length: 222.50 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

  • Macdonald, D. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Barns & Noble Books, Spain: Andromeda Oxford Limited.
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Size

Length: 230 cm

Weight: 137000 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Differs from the California sea lion (escapes occur in monk seal range) in much shorter neck and limbs, hind limbs that cannot be turned forward or used effectively in terrestrial locomotion, and lack of ear pinnae. Differs from the hooded seal (errant juveniles of which have occurred in monk seal range) in lacking mottled pelage; hooded seal pelage is irregularly mottled black [or dark brown] and gray, though the distinctness of the mottling is reduced when the pelage is wet (looks dark gray) (Reeves and Ling 1981).

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Ecology

Habitat

Little is known about the habitat of M. tropicalis. Likely, beach habitat was important, however they spent much of their time in the water. Caribbean monk seals occupied a marine environment, with rocky or sandy coastline for shelter and breeding areas. Unconfirmed sightings of M. tropicalis by divers usually take place underwater. This suggests they are rarely seen at the surface, or when they are, they are rarely recognized. Recent evidence indicates the ultimate contributing factor to the decline of Caribbean monk seals was loss of habitat.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; saltwater or marine

Aquatic Biomes: reef ; coastal

  • Lavigne, D. Dec. 1998. "The Monachus Guardian: Historical biogeography and phylogenetic relationships among modern monk seals, Monachus spp." (On-line). Accessed Oct. 17, 2001 at www.monachus.org/library.htm#BACK%20ISSUES.
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Habitat Type: Marine

Comments: Shallow lagoons and reefs, sandy beaches, and permanent islets or beaches above high tide. Young were born on sandy beaches; undoubtedly required undisturbed sites.

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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

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Trophic Strategy

Because Caribbean monk seals were classified as extinct before it was possible to study them, their primary diet is not known to science. It is assumed however, that it followed the typical monk seal diet of fishes and invertebrates. Caribbean monk seals are also assumed to have preyed on pelagic species, along with spiny lobsters, eels, octopus, and various other reef fish.

Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Eats non-insect arthropods, Molluscivore )

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Comments: Probably ate mainly various fishes and shellfish.

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Associations

The exact role this species played in the Caribbean ecosystem is unknown. As predators, they probably had some affect on regulating local fish populations.

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Caribbean monk seals had relatively few predators. It is likely that the biggest threats to them (other than humans) were the sharks. Although they were agile swimmers, these seals were not able to move quickly while on land. Bbecause of their isolated evolutionary history, M. tropicalis was not equipped with an innate fear of predation on land. This made them relatively easy targets for pioneers and fishermen.

Known Predators:

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Known predators

Monachus tropicalis is prey of:
Chondrichthyes
Homo sapiens

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Known prey organisms

Monachus tropicalis preys on:
non-insect arthropods
Actinopterygii
Mollusca
Crustacea

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 0 (zero)

Comments: No confirmed sightings since 1952.

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Global Abundance

Zero, no individuals known extant

Comments: No extant populations or individuals known.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical

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Cyclicity

Comments: Probably intermittently active day/night.

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Life Expectancy

Actual lifespan of M. tropicalis is unknown. However it is believed the average life span was around 20 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
20 years.

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Reproduction

The mating system of these seals is unknown.

Very little is known about the reproductive behavior of M. tropicalis. Births were likely in early December because several females killed in the Triangle Keys during this time had well-developed fetuses. One young per female is thought to have been born.

Breeding season: Births were likely to occur in early December.

Average number of offspring: 1.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous

Little is known of the parental care of Caribbean monk seals. The nursing period is likely to have been relatively short, because the mother did not feed between birth and weaning. It is unknown what role, if any, male parental care played.

Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)

  • Kenyon, K. Nov. 1972. Journal of Mammalogy, 53: 687-696.
  • Knudsen, P. Oct. 1977. The Case of the Missing Monk Seal. Natural History, 86 (1): 78-83.
  • Macdonald, D. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Barns & Noble Books, Spain: Andromeda Oxford Limited.
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Pupping season probably peaked in December.

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Conservation

Conservation Status

It is believed that M. tropicalis is now extinct. Although there are unconfirmed sightings still in Caribbean areas, two expeditions in search of M. tropicalis failed to produce any evidence that M.tropicalis is still present in these waters.

US Federal List: endangered

CITES: appendix i

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: extinct

  • Mignucci-Giannoni, A., D. Odell. 2001. Tropical and subtropical records of hoodd seals dispel the myth of extant Caribbean monk seal.. Bulletin of Marine Science, 68(1): 47-58.
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: NX - Presumed Extirpated

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: GX - Presumed Extinct

Reasons: Formerly ranged throughout the Caribbean Sea region; decimated by sealers in the 1800s; no confirmed sitings since 1952, despite extensive surveys; presumed extinct.

Other Considerations: Inherent tameness and defense of pups increased vulnerability to slaughter.

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Threats

Degree of Threat: A : Very threatened throughout its range communities directly exploited or their composition and structure irreversibly threatened by man-made forces, including exotic species

Comments: Major factor in its extermination was over-hunting, principally for its oil, during the 19th century. Disturbance of breeding areas by humans possibly played a role.

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Management

Global Protection: None. No occurrences appropriately protected and managed

Comments: No sites known for this species.

Needs: None, unless an extant population or individual is located.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

It was believed that M. tropicalis was a competitor to the fishing industry. This belief inspired mass killings of M. tropicalis by fishermen.

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Christopher Columbus was the first to note this species in his accounts. With the arrival of other Europeans, M. tropicalis was relentlessly exploited for the commercially valuable oil produced from their blubber. It was also used, less commonly, for meat.

Positive Impacts: food

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Economic Uses

Comments: When hauled out on land, evidently was not wary of humans; easily killed (e.g., for oil). Apparently was heavily hunted in breeding area at Arrecifes Triangulos, Bay of Campeche, in the mid-1800s (see Wing 1992).

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Risks

IUCN Red List Category

extinct since 1952
  • Wilson D.E. & Reeder D.A.M. (1993). Mammals species of the world. A taxonomic and geographic reference. Second edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1206 pp.
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