A sub-tropical marine mammal, the Caribbean monk seal was first recorded in modern scientific terms by Columbus in 1493 during his famous voyage to the Americas.
The Carribean monk seal had existed in the tropical waters of the West Indies for thousands of years and was well known to the native islanders. It is the only pinniped ever to have existed in the American tropics.
Other American pinnipeds, such as sea lions, exist only in cooler waters, and other sub-tropical marine mammals, such as manatees and dugongs are not pinnipeds.
During the 1600s, the Caribbean monk seal numbers declined due to extensive hunting by Spaniards who had come to the Caribbean. They were targeted particularly by fishers who viewed them as unwanted competitors.
The Caribbean monk seal was already rare by the 1700s, but the species survived into this century. The last recorded Caribbean Monk Seal in the United States was killed in 1922 off the coast of Key West in Florida.
Although the Caribbean monk seal is almost certainly extinct, possible sightings of this species have occurred in the West Indies over the years since 1922. Some of these reports have come from very remote islands and it is difficult to determine their veracity. As with the Tasmanian tiger-wolf, organized survey expeditions have not been able to locate evidence of living monk seals.
Scientists believe the date of final extinction for this species was around 1960.
Several related species around the world are currently endangered, including the Hawaiian monk seal and the Mediterranean monk seal. Similar to the Caribbean monk seal, both of these seals are also despised and persecuted by fishers.
Questions for Thought:
How should scientists deal with continuing reports of sightings of animals believed to be extinct? Given that survey expeditions cost a lot of money, how else might scientists verify or refute these reports?
Do you believe the Caribbean monk seal was reducing the numbers of fish available to humans? Has the fishing gotten better now that there are no more monk seals to eat fish? What effects might there be on the ecosystem from the elimination of this species?
Activities: [CS2-8,C3-1,C3-2, General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.