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Archive for November, 2017

Monk Seal Monday #5

It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving, and there’s probably a few of us who could shed a few pounds after feasting all weekend, so let’s talk about molting.

Healthy Hawaiian monk seals molt once a year. That is, they shed the top layer of their skin–and their fur along with it. It’s called a “catastrophic” molt, because it happens over a shortened period of time of about 10 days to two weeks. Unlike a snake, say, the process doesn’t happen all in one piece but in bits and pieces. A monk seal can look pretty raggedy during this time. The molting process taxes the monk seal’s energetic resources, so you’ll often find a molting animal tucked under bushes and resting on the beach. That’s all the more reason to not disturb them and why the HMSRP rarely uses them as study subjects–say for telemetry and/or video camera purposes.

We’ve got a couple Hawaiian monk seals going through their annual catastrophic molts right now and a few more ready to start any time, including RH80, RH38, and, possibly, RK14.

The clue to knowing when a monk seal is about to molt is when they start looking very green. Monk seals tend to spend two-thirds of their life in the water. During that time, algae can grow on their fur, typically in areas where a monk seal’s fur doesn’t always dry out–under the fore flipper and around their rear flippers.

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lynn-nowatzki

Photo credit: Lynn Nowatzki

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Field Report: October

In October, the Kauai team logged 225 seal sightings this month. This included 30 individually identified seals. Here’s a look at how the 225 number compares to other months.

October: 225
September: 354
August: 236
July: 335

As you can see, the logged sightings can vary quite a bit. There are numerous reasons that can effect the number of reported seal sightings. Two big ones are the availability of our steadfast volunteers taking their daily beach walks, and the presence of moms with pups and the subsequent “pup sitting” we do. Of course, the seals themselves play a factor in this, too. Maybe there’s some seasonality in foraging that takes them to remote areas of the island where we don’t see them. That’s the thing with animals that spend the majority of their lives at sea–we don’t quite know.

Other news to note:

  • PK4 weaned 49 days after birth. Unfortunately, we are not able to tag this weaner due to the high surf that charges the remote Napali Coast this time of year.
  • Seal activity continues around Poipu Beach Park with seals swimming among swimmers, snorkelers and the water aerobics class and hauling out on the beach amidst beach-goers. The advice for everyone involved is to give the animal its space and never approach, touch, harass, disturb it. Remember: Monk seals are wild animals; let’s keep them that way.
  • One additional monk seal received its morbillivirus vaccination in October. This virus, similar to distemper in dogs, has not infected the monk seal species. But in a proactive effort to combat an outbreak, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Science Program started vaccinating seals last year. To learn more about the threat of morbillivirus, read this Smithsonian article.

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V76(Thomton)There are numerous ways to positively identify a monk seal, including: 1) Natural bleach marks; 2) Scars; 3) Plastic flipper tags; and 4) Applied bleach marks.

To the untrained eye, one monk seal may look just like another. And, sometimes, even those who have been trained and spent hours, days and weeks observing monk seals confuse one monk seal for another. That’s because not all seals are flipper-tagged and even those that are sometimes lose the plastic identification tags attached to their rear flippers due to breakage. Too, a monk seal’s wounds—say from cookie cutter sharks—heal quite quickly, so a once dependable identifying scar can fade. Even the temporary three-digit “bleach marks,” applied by a trained biologist with the aid of your standard, over-the-counter, hair dye (thanks Clairol!) disappears every year when the seal goes through its annual molt.

The ability to identify individual seals is important for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program to track seals throughout their lifetime to gain information about their movement patterns, survival, reproduction, health, and more.

On Kaua‘i, we regularly see 40 to 50 individual seals that we consider “resident” to the island. While some tend to favor Kaua‘i, we do know many move from island to island throughout the archipelago. Most recently, thanks to these unique ways to identify individual seals, two of those once seen around Kaua‘i have been spotted elsewhere.

R8HE was a juvenile when flipper-tagged here in 2014, but she’s been regularly sighted around O‘ahu and reported as far away as Hawai‘i Island. Earlier this year, she appeared pregnant but then wasn’t seen for a couple months. She popped back up looking very thin, making HMSRP suspect she’d pupped in a remote place somewhere. (This happens even in the Main Hawaiian Islands.)

Too, earlier this year, an adult female started hauling out on the rocks near Brennecke’s Beach in Poipu and was bleach-marked V76. Late last month, she was reported by divers off Hawai‘i Island.

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RH38 is back and looking fit!

After 84 days in rehab at Ke Kai Ola (also known as the “Monk Seal Hospital”) on Hawai‘i Island, the yearling monk seal gained nearly 100 pounds. That’s more than a pound a day.

Here’s a video of RH38 exiting her carrier upon her return to Kaua‘i.

And here she is entering the ocean.

When we think of threats to Hawaiian monk seals, we often think of entanglements with marine debris. We think of monk seals ingesting fishhooks. These are the more obvious threats. That is, the ones we can easily see. But there are other threats that require the aid of microscopes to see, and that’s exactly what RH38 was fighting.

Gastrointestinal parasites (tapeworms) are not uncommon in monk seals; however, RH38 was carrying such a heavy load, it had a negative effect on her health.

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This photo of RH38 was taken in July. (PC: J. Thomton)

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This photo of RH38 was taken in July. (PC: J. Thomton)

RH38 was born to RK30 in the spring of 2016 at a remote beach along Napali Coast. At weaning, she was reported to be one of the largest pups of the 2016 season across the state. However, in the ensuing months, as you can see from the photos above, she lost quite a bit of weight. At her release from Ke Kai Ola last week, she topped out at a healthy 185 pounds. What’s more, she’d been de-wormed. She’s now in the perfect condition to go through her first annual molt, which, by the looks of all the green algae growing on her, is likely to happen soon.

When monk seals molt, they do so all at one time, over the course of 10 days to two weeks, spending much of that time conserving energy on the beach.

Since RH38’s about to experience her first molt, she was not outfitted with a telemetry tag that would tell us her whereabouts, because it would simply fall off as soon as the patch of hair and skin holding it in place does.

Ke Kai Ola was recently recognized by NOAA with a “Species in the Spotlight Hero Award” during the “Year of the Monk Seal” for their conservation efforts in helping recover the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Since the hospital opened three years ago, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated and released 20 monk seals back into the wild. We are very grateful for their assistance in helping RH38 return to tip-top shape.

As well, we couldn’t move ailing monk seals quickly from Kaua‘i to Hawai‘i Island without the help of the U.S. Coast Guard who, once again, provided a lift for RH38. That’s two airplane flights for this one-and-a-half-year-old monk seal.

 

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