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A recent scientific publication in Aquatic Mammals shared the first detection of polymastia in the Mediterranean monk seal. 

The Mediterranean monk seal is one of the rarest mammals worldwide, even more endangered than the Hawaiian monk seal. Both belong to the family of Phocidae, also known asearlessor trueseals. But both species differ from other members of this family in that they have four nipples, instead of two. Typically, the nipples are arranged two on each side of the belly with the navel in the center. Similar to the layout of dots on a domino symbolizing the number five.

Extra mammary glands is a condition known as polymastia.

The paper reported the first two known cases of polymastia in Mediterranean monk seals. And it happened, pretty much, by accident.

Lead author on the paper Miguel Ángel Cedenilla says, the detection of the first case was pure serendipity. In a Facebook post, he’s quoted as saying, “In November 2016, while trying to tag a female on Deserta Grande Island with a Fastloc GPS, in full development of the LIFE MADEIRA MONK SEAL project, we realized something strange. Of the four females that had given birth, one had lost her calf. But she acted as a foster mother to the other pups. Our surprise was to see that three jets of milk from three well-separated points emanated from her belly. Clearly, that female had 3 active teats on her right flank. It was Rosa Pires who came up with the most appropriate name possible to call this new female: ‘Maminhas.’ which in Portuguese means ‘mamas.’”

All total, this Mediterranean monk seal had five nipples.

Then, in March 2020, another Mediterranean with polymastia was discovered. 

According to the paper, “The second case was observed at the Cabo Blanco monk seal colony (Western Sahara/ Mauritania) through photo-identification pictures taken of breeding female 2363, “Oca,” in March 2020. Although monitored since 2011, and having had at least three pups in 2012, 2014, and 2020, no lactation of this female had been recorded, and it was not possible to know if the 5th nipple was active in milk production.”

There happens to be a Hawaiian monk seal well-known around Kauai’ as “Triple Nipple.” As the nickname implies, she has three nipples. Not that she has a bonus nipple and, hence, a total of five. She has a total of three nipples, instead of the more common four. Her scientific ID is RK14; however, she’s currently untagged, so the best way to ID her is by the presence of her three nipples.

Female Mediterranean monk seal on side with three nipples exposed and streaming milk.
Nursing Mediterranean monk seal.

PC: Aquatic Mammals Journal

Right now, there’s a very visible monk seal hanging out at Poipu. He’s been there for a week, seemingly day and night. This is very natural. Approximately, once a year, Hawaiian monk seals go through a “catastrophic molt,” meaning they lose the top layer of skin and fur in one concentrated period of time, rather than continually throughout the year. The seal at Poipu is an untagged male (with a temp ID of V3) whose molt is about 70% complete. The molting process can take one to two weeks.

Because molting requires great energetic resources, during this time, the seal will usually stick pretty close to the beach, often spending the night tucked high up the beach and under bushes.

Molting is a vulnerable time for monk seals, another reason to encourage folks to keep dogs on leashes. Typically, the molt starts on the belly, flippers, muzzle, and scars. Then, moves to the back. The molting pattern isn’t exactly “attractive.” A seal with patches of dead skin falling off can often cause beach-goers concern, thinking the seal is sick or, even, dead. Adult females will often molt soon after they wean their pups.

Basically, seals molt, because their coat gets dirty. After spending long bouts of time at sea, algae will often grow on their fur. If you see a seemingly green-colored seal, you’ll know he or she is nearing his/her molt.

After molting, monk seals regain their dark gray to brown color on their dorsal (back) side and a light gray to yellowish brown color on their under (ventral) side. This difference in coloration is known as “countershading.” From below, the seal’s light belly blends in with the sunny surface of the ocean. From above, the seal’s darker back is closer in color to the dark ocean floor. This serves as camouflage for seals. It helps them sneak up on prey, as well as, hide from sharks and other predators.

Here’s a series of photos from a few years ago that show the molting progression.

Stories related to this research:

Motherload: The Story of a Fertile Turtle in the Hawaiian Islands

A Continuation of Motherload: The Story of a Fertile Turtle in the Hawaiian Islands

Punahele: A Green Sea Turtle’s Journey to “Destination Unknown”

Destination Known: Punahele’s Safe Return Home from Lalo

Turtle and Seal Biologists Deploy to Papahānaumokuākea for the 2022 Field Season


Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 277 seal sightings this month. This included 32 individually identified seals.

  • October: 277
  • September: 400
  • August: 320
  • July: 311
  • June: 283
  • May: 248
  • April: 294
  • March: 292
  • February: 233
  • January: 233
  • December: 267
  • November: 168
  • October: 229

New:

·       Five large dogs harassed and possibly bit an adult seal at Makua at Cannon’s surf break (near Tunnels surf break). It appeared one man brought all 5 dogs to the beach and allowed them to run off leash and did very little to stop them from harassing and chasing the seal off the beach. Photos were submitted of the dogs and owner, and sent to DOCARE and Humane Society for further action. All seals seen in the area since are in good health and show no signs of dog bite injuries.

Updates:

·       Continue to closely monitor yearling RP32 who is in thin body condition. The seal is likely in pre-molt.

·       PK3 weaned from mother RK28 after 40 days of nursing. The pup was flipper tagged with Q78 and Q79 tags and vaccinated. His new ID is RQ78. The pup has remained in his natal area and is thriving.

Molting: 5 seals molted this past month.

Vaccination: Vaccinated weaned pup RQ78.

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 400 seal sightings this month. This included 41 individually identified seals.

  • September: 400
  • August: 320
  • July: 311
  • June: 283
  • May: 248
  • April: 294
  • March: 292
  • February: 233
  • January: 233
  • December: 267
  • November: 168
  • October: 229
  • September: 251

New:

·       Nothing to report.

Updates:

·       Continue to closely monitor yearling RP32 who is in thin body condition. The seal is likely in pre-molt.

·       RK28 gave birth to PK3 (3rd pup of the year for Kauai). The usual signage was erected and the pup watch schedule continued. The male pup is thriving, and weaned in early October (which will be reported in the next report).

Molting: 5 seals molted this past month.

Bleaching: 3 seals were bleach marked.

Vaccination: Vaccinated weaned pup RQ52.

Last week, a visitor exploring the coastline on the north shore of Kauai discovered two monk seals and called the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui hotline. 

Because one of the seals was bleach-marked with a noticeable “V6” on its side, the seal was able to be identified as RQ60

RQ60 was born earlier this year. She was reported to be hauled out on rocks at a remote pocket cove near Princeville. This is the first sighting of her in this area. She weaned earlier this summer on July 15th and, almost immediately, started exploring the coastline beyond her natal beach.

Another Kauai seal, RK42 is on the move, too. RK42 was born in 2018 to one-time regular pupper RK13, and she was recently sighted off Molokai.

It’s not unusual for Hawaiian monk seals to seem to have favorite haunts; however, it’s also not unusual for them to explore far and wide. Read this post to learn more about the many Hawaiian monk seals with a Kauai – Kaena Point (Oahu) connection. 

Wrapping 39 days of nursing, a thin RK28 was last seen with her pup on October 3rd. She’s now, foraging to replenish her lost energy stores while PK3 is learning how to forage on his own.

PC: A Kaufmann
PC: A Kaufmann

PK3 will be flipper-tagged in the next couple weeks. Meanwhile, one way to identify him is by a natural bleach mark on his mid-back.

PC: A Kaufmann

PK3 pupped at a low birth weight, but by weaning had certainly plumped up to a healthy size.

PC: M. Olry

For now, PK3 is in his mouthy stage, exploring the nearshore waters, as well as, the beach for what might be tasty.

PC: R Kulhanek

Earlier this year, a volunteer with mālama i nā honu reported a green sea turtle hauled out at Poipu had a large orange bobber and monofilament line encircling her right fore flipper. After examination and concern about the line cutting off circulation, the turtle was captured and flown to Maui Ocean Center where radiographs revealed a pathological fracture to the bone, requiring surgical amputation in order to save the turtle. 

After surgery and about three weeks of care, the turtle—sporting an identification of KA43—was returned to Poipu Beach and released. She immediately head for the water, making good strokes, and swam off. She has since been reported basking on the beach at Poipu. 

According to NOAA Sea Turtle Recovery Coordinator Irene Kelly, turtles with three flippers seem to do just fine, including making long migration swims. However, there can be some challenges. A male who loses a fore flipper may not be able to grasp a female properly during mating. A female who loses a hind flipper may not be able to dig a nest chamber. So reproduction success may be compromised.

The good news is KA43 is female, and she lost her right fore flipper, meaning she should be able to dig nest chambers just fine. 

Unfortunately, entanglements with fishing line and gear are on the rise in the main Hawaiian Islands. Thankfully, a group of divers are helping clean up harbors where sea turtles have been known to get entangled and die.

Hoʻmalu Ke Kai is a community organization dedicated to helping with the marine debris issue plaguing our island. They help with beach cleanups and, even, underwater cleanups at Kukuiʻula and Ahukini harbors. 

It takes a hui of concerned people to care for Kauai’s wildlife.

The more surprising whale species spotted on extremely rare occasions in Hawaiian waters is the killer whale (Orcinus orca). In late August, Cascadia Research Collective sighted a group of killer whales off Kona and, for only the third time, were able to deploy a satellite tag on a single individual. A couple days after tagging, the research team re-located the individual and its group and witnessed as the killer whales tossed a dwarf sperm whale into the air in their successful pursuit of it. (Dwarf sperm whales can grow up to eight feet in length. Killer whales grow to an average of 20 to 26 feet.) Killer whales in Hawaiian waters are known to have a generalist diet, feeding on cephalopods, sharks, and other marine mammals.

As of September 24, the tag was still transmitting data, showing the group was still cruising the Hawaiian Islands. According to a Facebook post by Cascadia Research Collective, they have photo-identified 77 different individuals in Hawaiian waters. The satellite-tagged individual was confirmed to match a group seen off Kona a year earlier.

In 2008, an emaciated killer whale stranded at Brennecke’s Beach on the south shore and was euthanized. She was reported to be in extremely poor condition.

Click here to learn more about killer whales in Hawaiian waters.

Click on the link below to see photos and tracking maps of the tagged killer whale and its group.

Like normal growing pups, PK3 is spending more and more time in the water. He’s long, robust, and growing quickly. RK28 seems to be holding her weight, too. PK3 is 25 days old today, so should have another 2-3 weeks with his mom. PK3’s three-year-old sister, RL28, has been hanging out nearby lately too.