Brief fact sheet Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus)

Distribution

© Joachim Mahrholdt
To enlarge the map please click on the image. © Joachim Mahrholdt

The monk seal range once included the entire Mediterranean Sea, parts of the Black Sea, the whole of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts from Portugal through the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands down to Senegal. The populations have shrunk severely in the last 50 years so that at present here are only two key sites in the distribution range – one in the east of the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea and the other on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Northwest Africa. Well researched estimates rate the present total population at only 400 to 600 individuals world wide.


Notes on the map
Data source: Monachus Guardian, Ocean Care, EuroNatur's own surveys

The boundaries only indicate the core distribution areas as far as at present known. Lone individuals and smaller populations may be found outside these areas.

 

Habitat

From some observations on the behaviour of monk seals and also from passages in historical sources one can assume that monk seals were originally settled all along the coasts of their distribution. After centuries of persecution monk seals have become very shy of people and have therefore withdrawn to a few remote and inaccessible sections of the coastline. These are in general small bays or rocky cliffs in which they have found grottos. It is in these caves, some of which can only be reached by divers, that they raise their young.

Physical features

The Mediterranean monk seal is a medium-sized seal with an estimated weight of 250 to 300 kilos and a body length (Head and rump) of 2.4 metres on average. The females are in general rather smaller. They have short fur of a variety of shades. After the first moulting the coat is usually  (dark) brown or grey with the belly a lighter colour, sometimes with a large white patch. Other paler patches on the coat are also not unusual.

Reproduction

Monk seals can give birth at any time on the year but most pups are born in September and October. After a gestation period of around 9 months the female gives birth to the pups with their fluffy, black fur. For the birth and early months the monk seal females choose well-hidden rocky grottos and caves only accessible by water. After two to six weeks the pups follow their parents into the water. Weaning is said to be at 16 to 17 weeks. The young stay with the mother up to the age of three and reach sexual maturity at between four and six years of age.

Diet

From the observations of fishermen and from analyses of the content of their stomachs we know that the seal is a real marine predator and feeds on all kinds of fish, octopus and crabs. Seals often hunt in a group and seem to stay mainly in relatively shallow coastal waters with a depth of up to 30 meters.

Extent of endangerment / protection status

At all periods of history people have hunted the monk seals – for its flesh as food, for its fat to burn in lamps and for its skin as a protection against the cold. The first evidence of massive exploitation comes from the 15th century when the Portuguese killed an estimated 5 thousand seals along the Atlantic coast of Africa.

Today there are a variety of threat factors which have led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to declare the Monk Seal among the twelve most endangered animal species world-wide. The endangerment is caused by:

  • disturbance or destruction of their habitat
  • hunting or outright persecution
  • unintentional capture in fishing nets
  • scarcity of food
  • ocean pollution
  • sickness and poisoning
  • unwillingness at the political level to implement protection measures

Protection of Mediterranean monk seals

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Mysterious and threatened: the Mediterranean monk seal is among the rarest of mammals in Europe. We want to secure the last surviving population of these endearing sea mammals.

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