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Monk Seal Monday #143: Male Aggression

When a monk seal hauls out on the beach with wounds on its back, the most common explanation is male-on-female aggression. That’s why earlier this month when a seal rolled onto the beach with a nasty wound on its back, the individual was suspected to be female. Too, the animal was tagged; however, the only visible characters on the very worn tag were “31.” That led to the conclusion the animal was female RF30 (with flipper tags F30 and F31).

However, on a closer look at the animal’s scars and tag in photographs, it was determined the monk seal was not F31. In fact, she wasn’t even a she. The wounded animal was, in fact, adult male RN30–with flipper tag N31. Subsequent photographs confirmed it.

While male-on-male aggression is rare, especially in the main Hawaiian Islands, it’s not novel. The behavior has been witnessed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is suspected to be related to skewed male-to-female sex ratios. The aggressors tend to be subordinate males ganging up on females. (Like we reported here.) But they can also gang up on adult dominant males.

According to this paper, high concentrations of subordinate males in an area of few females can lead to aggregate aggression. Also, “…much of the evidence gathered to date suggests that aggressive incidents may be more likely to result from a ‘numerical’ failure, where a male that is capable of exerting dominance over 1 or 2 competing males is overwhelmed by a larger number of competitors and is unable to prevent their access to a female.”

The paper shares one particular event: “At the onset of an aggressive onshore attack observed in 1985, an attending male defended a female from a succession of 4 male challengers that remained nearby. Eventually, one of the ‘defeated’ males made a second attempt, and as he fought the attending male, another male rushed in. The defending male rushed back towards the female, followed by all remaining males, and was quickly overwhelmed (Johanos & Austin 1988).”

Earlier this summer, a group of males was video’ed mobbing a female off Lehua, suggesting there may be many subordinate males present off Lehua and Niihau. It’s not known whether N30 is a dominant or subordinate male, but it’s clear he was attacked. Perhaps N30 got mixed up in something similar to the anecdote shared above. Earlier this year, he was observed competing with RN44 for RB00 when she was with PK1. He’s also been sighted at PMRF, a popular spot for seals heading to and/or returning from Niihau. In fact, he was sighted (with no wounds) at PMRF on July 30th. He was next sighted on Kauai’s north shore and reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui on September 4th–bearing the mobbing wounds.

These mobbing wounds can look pretty dramatic. But monk seals have an amazing ability to heal and already, N30’s wounds are healing.

Photo credit: Olry and Megonnell

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After nearly eight weeks, RB00 finally weaned her pup. KP1 was born on April 23, 2021 and entered life as a “weaner” between June 15 and June 18, 2021. Mom’s robust body condition at time of birth allowed her to stick around longer than most and ensure KP1 a good start at foraging on his own.

But that’s not the only (p)update. On Tuesday, June 15, 2021, an unexpected pup event occurred on a remote west side beach, Polihale State Beach Park. Mom is an unknown female, temporarily ID’ed as MK2. Pup will be known as KP2 until a later date when it can be flipper-tagged. Mom and pup appear healthy, in good body condition, with pup very active, and nursing.

The location of mom and pup is somewhat challenging–for mom and pup, as well as, volunteers.

For mom and pup, there is no protective off-shore reef, sometimes strong currents, sometimes a hefty shore-break, and deep soft sand that gets extremely hot. This beach is also popular for campers and fishers with dogs off leash and trucks moving up and down the beach.

For volunteers, this location necessitates a 4WD vehicle and lots of sun protection, such as an umbrella and footwear because of the hot sand. The good news is there is cell service at this beach location and pretty epic views of Napali Coast. At this time, the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui is looking for new (and returning) volunteers to help with pup-sitting. Anyone interested should call 808-651-7668.

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Field Report: May 2021

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 209 seal sightings this month. This included 28 individually identified seals.

  • May: 209
  • April: 155
  • March: 137
  • February: 119
  • January: 125
  • December: 119
  • November: 133
  • October: 152
  • September: 152
  • August: 198
  • July: 120
  • June: 81
  • May: 147

New:

  • Flipper tagged RH58’s (Rocky) pup from 2020 as RM58, and gave morbillivirus vaccine.
  • Return of visitors causing increased disturbance to seals across the island. More signs put at racks at Poipu beach park to manage SRA without ropes and volunteers deployed.

Updates:

  • RB00 and new pup KP1 continue to thrive. 
  • 3-year-old male R1NI washed ashore dead on the south shore. Carcass was fresh code 2, collected and frozen on Kauai, then shipped to Oahu for necropsy. Gross necropsy did not reveal much, awaiting histopathology lab results.
  • Subadult male seal RK58 was returned from KKO after 6 weeks of rehab and released on March 26. He was treated at KKO for likely dog attack injuries that resulted in significant weight loss and infected puncture wounds.

Morbillivirus Vaccination: RM58 received the initial vaccine this month.

Research/Support of PIFSC:

  • Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.
  • Logged all seal sightings for PIFSC database. Organized photos and reported sightings, molt tallies, survival factors to send to PIFSC.

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It’s gender reveal time: KP1 is a male.

Here’s pup last week at five weeks of age. His mom, RB00, still looks like she’s sporting a fair amount of fat stores, suggesting she might continue nursing for a bit longer. Pup is thriving, benefitting from Mom’s robust size at birthing.

In volunteer news, the state DLNR

State leadership that our DLNR-sponsored volunteer team has green-lighted a monk seal haul out response work with a slightly modified approach:

  • Hotline managers will dispatch volunteers when seal sightings are reported to the hotline – same as pre-COVID times.
  • Volunteers will respond wearing a volunteer shirt and will do a general seal health check, take photos/ID, and set-up signs where appropriate (no ropes to be used anywhere), and then depart. Volunteers will not be scheduled to do shifts or outreach on the beach at this point in time, but rather will follow a spot-check protocol.
  • Masks and distancing: State and County guidelines will be followed. Currently the rules on Kauai and statewide are: masks are not required outdoors. However, when in groups larger than 10 people the State and County recommend wearing masks. Of course, if volunteers prefer to wear a mask, they are encouraged to do so.

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Monk Seal Monday #131: KP1 Pupdate

Last week, RB00‘s pup, known as KP1, made two weeks of age. There’s still some question on sex for the youngster; however, there’s no question KP1 is progressing as a healthy young Hawaiian monk seal. That is, pup swims, nurses, rests, swims, nurses, rests, swims, nurses, rests. Mom’s taking pup for longer swims and will vocalize if her pup gets a little too far away. Also, as usual, RB00 and KP1 have received the sometimes unwanted attention from other seals cruising by a little too close for Mom’s comfort.

Hawaiian monk seal pups are born with a black lanugo coat, making it easy to spot any natural bleach marks, and this is no different with KP1 who has a white tip on the right fore flipper and a white nail on the left fore flipper–visible with a pair of binoculars. There’s also a substantial (see photo below) light-colored bleach mark on KP1’s belly/side. Note that as pup’s molt their lanugo about four to six weeks of age, these natural bleach marks often disappear as their normal gray fur grows in.

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Monk Seal Monday #128: RB00 Pups Again

For the third year in a row, RB00 made the long-distance journey from Hawaii Island to Kauai to give birth near her own natal site. Based on reported sightings, the journey took her eight days. RB00 was first sighted on Kauai’s north shore last Wednesday, and by Friday morning, she had pupped.

About six hours after giving birth, “mega-mom” RB00 decided it was about time for KP1 to go for a swim. She began inching her blubbery way into the water and called for her pup to follow. It did, until a small wave rudely tossed the pup about, and mom had second thoughts. Then, RBOO harshly scolded the pup for being in the water, smacked it with her fore-flipper and directed KP1 to shore. The slide slow below shows the sequence of events, including the final photo showing the post-squabble makeup.

Otherwise, mom appears to be attentive, and fairly calm in response to public presence. Additional swim lessons ensued on day two of life, which the pup successfully completed.

Note: Last year, pups were referred to sequentially based on birth order, starting with PK. For example, last year’s pup born to RB00 was logged as PK1. Because only two out of three of last year’s pups have been flipper-tagged, this year’s pups will be sequentially numbered based on birth order, starting with KP. This will, hopefully, prevent any confusion.

Photo credit: J. Thomton.

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Monk Seal Monday: #126: Meet M36

Finally, last year’s first-born pup, who came into this world the day before a big storm on March 15 to RB00, was flipper-tagged M36 (left flipper) and M37 (right flipper). Seals typically receive their flipper-tags shortly after being weaned. At the same time, measurements are taken–length and girth. However, when M36 weaned after 45 days of nursing on the last day in April, COVID precautions prevented any seal handling. Until last week.

Last summer, M36 was bleach-marked “V00,” and the bleach is still visible on her side; only instead of bleached white, it’s green. In the next few weeks to couple months, M36 will experience her first catastrophic molt, in which over 10 days to two weeks, she’ll shed the top layer of her skin and fur. Seals spend such a great amount of time at sea that algae actually grows on their fur. Once she finishes molting, M36 will sport a new silvery coat.

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Photo credit: Ke Kai Ola

For the past two years, a very large seal with the flipper tags B00 has made her way across the archipelago to give birth where she herself was born to the well-known RH58, a.k.a. Rocky, in 2007. This is RB00. She was sighted as recently as last week on Hawaii Island. Her predicted due date is two days away–Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Last year, RB00 gave birth on Kauai’s north shore to a monk seal still known as PK1 and who is also bleach-marked V00. No flipper-tags have yet been applied to PK1 due to COVID restrictions; however, she should be tagged soon. She is predictably found at her north shore birth beach and has a preference for hauling out very high on the beach tucked into vegetation, often completely hidden from view.

The year before, in 2019, RB00 gave birth to RL08. Because RB00 tends to pack on the pounds during her pregnancy, she can often nurse for a few days or even weeks longer than other female monk seals. RL08 continues to thrive and is much larger than most two-year-olds, thanks to the head-start his mom gave him from two extra weeks of nursing (54 days total) when he was a pup. RL08 is most commonly seen on the north and east shores of Kauai and was sighted 47 different times in 2020.

In 2018, RB00 gave birth on Lanai. In 2016, she delivered a stillborn pup on Maui. So there’s really no telling where she’ll decide to pup this year–Hawaii Island, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai. With this long-distance swimmer, all are possibilities.

To read more about RB00, click here.

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Here are some year-end stats. Like everything for 2020, remember that these numbers are greatly influenced due to COVID-19, which paused the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui’s volunteer program.

Grand sightings total: 

  • 2,005 or 5.5/day monk seal sightings on Kauai in 2020.
  • 3,154 or 8.9/day in 2019.
  • 3,253 or 8.9/day in 2018.
  • 3,621 or 9.9/day in 2017.
  • 3,236 or 8.9/day in 2016.
  • 3,321 or 9.1/day in 2015.
  • 2,516 or 6.9/day in 2014.

Kauai population: 

  • 67 unique individual seals sighted on Kauai in 2020.
  • 67 in 2019.
  • 60 in 2018.
  • 60 in 2017.
  • 56 in 2016.
  • 53 in 2015.
  • 47 in 2014.

Births: 3 total born on Kauai in 2020.

  • V00 (bleach-marked) born to RB00 in March.
  • V02 (bleach-marked) born RH58 to in August.
  • RM28 (flipper-tagged) born to RK28 in August.

Mortalities: 6 confirmed mortalities in 2020.

  • R313 and fetus: adult female with near full term fetus, necropsy pending.
  • RJ36: 3-year-old male, hook ingestion, necropsy pending.
  • RKA6: 2-year old female, mummified condition, cause of death unknown.
  • RL52: 1-year-old male, necropsy pending, case under investigation.
  • Weaned female pup, ID unknown, necropsy pending, case under investigation.
  • Subadult seal, sex and ID unknown, mummified condition, cause of death unknown, case under investigation.

Niihau Seals (likely): sighted a minimum of 8 new seals in 2020, but likely more as several new untagged seals had no markings or scars so no temporary IDs were given.

  • 8 in 2020.
  • 5 in 2019.
  • 9 in 2018.
  • 12 in 2017.
  • 6 in 2016.
  • 14 in 2015.

Displacements: 4 total displacements occurred.

  • 3 displacements from unsafe or unsuitable locations (boat ramps, beach roads, sidewalks, etc).
  • 1 displacements from the Poipu keiki pool. 

Vaccination for morbillivirus efforts: 

Due to COVID-19, fieldwork was minimal and no seals were vaccinated. Plans are in place to resume vaccinations in 2021.

Bleach marking effort: 

6 bleach marks were applied.

Stranding Responses in 2020: 

One monk seal stranding response and 6 carcass retrievals:

  • RK13 – gillnet wrapped around muzzle was removed with a pole mounted cutting tool. 

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Monk Seal Monday #109: Weaner Update

In the good news department, all three of Kauai’s monk seal pups born this year are female. The more females in the population, the greater the potential for a boost in population numbers–super important with endangered species. Additionally, all three are no longer “pups” but “weaners,” as NOAA refers to Hawaiian monk seal pups after their mothers wean them.

The year’s first-born was PK1, born to RB00. PK1 nursed for 45 days. PK2, born to RH58, nursed for 39 days. And PK3, born to RK28, nursed for 40 days.

Due to COVID-19, none of the weaners have been flipper tagged. That also means none have been measured for girth and length. However, here’s an anecdotal assessment of their size: PK2 is fat. PK3 is fatter. PK1 is still the fattest, and she has actually slimmed down some since she was weaned in April.

Instead of flipper-tagging, the use of “bleach tags” will be used to identify the weaners. PK1 has been bleached V00. PK2 has been bleached V02. In the coming days, it’s hoped to bleach PK3 as V03.

As the oldest, V00 has already started moving around quite a bit these days–between the north and east sides of the island. V02 and V03 are still sticking close to their natal beaches; however, V03 has just started to explore a bit more in the past week. During this time, all three are learning how to feed themselves.

It’s not unusual for recently-weaned seals to approach other seals in the hopes of finding one with the milk-producing gifts that their mothers once provided them. Typically, this results in a scuffle between weaner and the second seal, sand and water flying. However, last week, when PK3 approached PK2, no scuffle ensued. No milk ensued, either. But, for about 30 minutes, PK2 showed extreme patience in allowing PK3 to nudge, push, and nip her in the hopes of a little nourishing milk. Here are some photos from that interaction.

PC: J. Thomton
PC: J. Thomton
PC: J. Thomton
PC: J. Thomton

The past several years, R400 birthed late in the summer along Na Pali coast; however, there have been no reports of her this year. Surprisingly she was sighted on Oahu for the first time ever this past July, and she did not look pregnant. So, maybe she’s taking a year off.

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