Like many endangered species, the Hawaiian monk seal has struggled to draw attention to its many trials – some of which are as weird as they are cruel.
In July, an autopsy revealed that three seals had died from a disease called toxoplasmosis, caused by the microscopic parasite toxoplasma gondii – which is commonly found in cat faeces.
“Cat turd kills seal pups,” is a great headline. But no one ran with it.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
Last week, one of the last remaining 1400 monk seals took publicity matters into its own … flippers, and posed for a photograph with an eel stuck up its nose.
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The Honolulu-based Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) – part of the United States’ NOAA Fisheries agency – posted the photo on its Facebook page last Monday.
“Mondays … it might not have been a good one for you, but it had to have been better than an eel in your nose,” the HMSRP’s Brittany Dolan joked on the program’s Facebook page.
Ms Dolan explained this wasn’t a one-off.
“We have now found juvenile seals with eels stuck in their noses on multiple occasions,” she wrote. “In all cases the eel was successfully removed and the seals were fine. The eels, however, did not make it.”
Most of the comments on the page were comically inclined: “When an eel lunges out and clamps on to your snout, That’s a Moray,” wrote Greg Boness.
Johann Peter Lall pondered: “Where are these young seals learning this eel sniffing stuff from? Video games?”
Maureen Winter gave a mother’s perspective: “Like little kids and
peas … ”
Predictably, the photo went viral, the Twitter-sphere lamented the seal’s plight, and more stories have been written about the pretty monk seal in recent days than, well, probably ever.
The first eel-sniffing seal was spotted off Hawaii’s Lisianski Island in 2016. The discovery didn’t make much a picture because most of the eel had disappeared up the nose and down the seal’s throat, leaving a jewel-like nub that could just as easily been a weird growth.
Just keep pulling, slowly
Since then, special protocols – a variation of the magician’s trick of slowly pulling a hankie out of a pocket – have been developed to remove the wrigglers from the seals’ nostrils.
But why are they snorting them in the first place? The research program has two theories.
Firstly, seals blindly forage for food with their faces, pushing their mouths and noses under rocks and into the crevices of corals reefs. So it may be that eels are aggressively wriggling into the nostrils as a defence strategy.
The other idea is that the seals are swallowing eels whole, and then regurgitate them through their noses.
But why is it happening now? The program has been monitoring monk seals for 40 years – and the eel-snorting is a new phenomenon.
In a statement, the HMSRP said: “We don’t know if this is just some strange statistical anomaly, or if we will see more eels in seals in the future.”
The program’s lead scientist and supervisory research ecologist Charles Littnan told The Washington Post: “It almost does feel like one of those teenage trends that happen. One juvenile seal did this very stupid thing and now the others are trying to mimic it.
“I would gently plead for them to stop,” he said, as there is the possibility that the eels could pose a health risk to the seals.
They already have enough troubles.
Monk seals are a popular tourist attraction, especially for kayakers looking for an intimate encounter with a sweet-eyed creature.
But monk seals have been struggling for survival since Polynesians landed in Hawaii, about 1500 years ago, and killed most of them for meat and oil.
Among their current troubles are climate change, disease, toxins and parasites, sharks and, of late, murder by humans resentful of the seal’s protected status: whenever a seal lands on a populated beach, an exclusion zone is set up, annoying beach-goers who want to play with the dogs and otherwise follow their whims.
Saving the species is projected to cost $US378 million ($525 million) and take 54 years.