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RO28 and pup 2Twelve years ago, Kauai’s newest mom, RO28, was born in nearly the same spot she gave birth last week. While monk seals tend to have unique personalities and proclivities, it’s not uncommon for females to return to their natal beach sites when it’s their time to give birth. In fact, RO28 has pupped along the same stretch of coastline for six years in a row.

What’s more unique than that is the fact that RO28’s six pups are all still alive.

With all the threats facing Hawaiian monk seals–entanglements in marine debris, ingested fish hooks, intentional harm by humans, and the growing threat of toxoplasmosis–somehow all of RO28’s six pups have, thus far, evaded them all.

Point of note: RO28’s mother was RK06 who was shot by a fisherman in 2009. Even RO28 herself has run into some challenges. In 2010, she turned up with a fishhook in her mouth. Shortly after it was removed, she crossed the 100-mile open ocean channel to Oahu where she spends most of her time–until it’s time to give birth. Then, she makes the return journey to her natal site. Within a few days of arriving, she pups. The timing is impressive.

Here’s a recap of RO28’s pupping history:

  • In 2013, RO28 gave birth to RN30 who has recently traveled to Oahu
  • In 2014, RO28 gave birth to RF28 who now hangs out at Niihau
  • In 2015, RO28 gave birth to RG28 who often hauls out on Kauai’s South Shore. This birth was captured on video by one of our volunteers and can be seen here.
  • In 2016, RO28 gave birth to RH80 who regularly circumnavigates Kauai
  • In 2017, RO28 gave birth to RJ28 who can be found on beaches on Kauai’s North Shore and East Side

 

And, as always, if you’d like to volunteer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui on Kauai, please email kauaiseals@gmail.com. And if you run across any seals on the beach, please take a quick health assessment and report any sightings to the hotline–808-651-7668.

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Two more pups have joined the Hawaiian monk seal population.

On June 26, RK28 gave birth to a healthy pup, her first pup born on Kauai in four years. Here is PK3 on the day of his/her birth.

rk28 and pup day oneAs you may recall, in 2014, RK28’s two-week old pup was tragically killed during a night-time dog(s) attack that also left dozens of puncture wounds on four other seals, including RK28 who likely valiantly tried her best to protect her pup. It was a tragedy, especially since it’s one that could have been prevented simply by not letting dogs run free. Please share this story when chatting with folks on the beach about the various threats these endangered monk seals face. To read more about this tragedy, click here.

Two years ago, in 2016, RK28 was observed with large mobbing wounds and abscesses on her back, the scars of which are still visible on her back. These wounds are caused by male monk seals and have been observed in other females. The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program reports this kind of male behavior can involve multiple males competing to mate with an adult female or a single male targeting a younger seal. To read more about adult male aggression, click here.

But back to some good news. Just two days ago, on June 30, RO28 provided the species with another member. This is RO28’s sixth pup in as many years on Kauai. Here is PK4 on the day of his/her birth. RO28 and pup day one

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[One day late. Apologies.]

RK42
Now has a bleach mark: V42. This will make her easy to identify from a distance. Also, she’s still hanging around her natal beach–one that happens to be popular as a somewhat off-leash dog park. So, please leash your dogs, and if you get a chance to kindly request someone else to do the same, that would be great. If there is any kind of dog-seal interaction, please call the hotline at 808-651-7668.IMG_3740.JPG

Here’s another view of RK42, looking as charismatic as any charismatic megafauna and one reason why many people fall for these monk seals. She’s also been seen hanging around other juvenile seals, as is typical for this age.

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PK2
We have another pup. (By the way, it’s looking like a record may be broken this year for the highest number of pups born in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Pretty exciting. And good news, especially coming after last week’s report of three deaths due to toxoplasmosis.)

Meet PK2, born to our ever reliable, survivor RK30, on her favorite remote pupping beach along Napali Coast. Pup was born on or before June 18. Any guesses as to gender? (Scroll down to third photo.)

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RN02
This five-year-old male was translocated from Big Island to Niihau in 2013 after he repeatedly interacted aggressively with swimmers. Shortly after arriving at Niihau, he swam across the channel and has since been regularly sighted on Kauai’s South Shore, sometimes cruising among swimmers, as he’s been doing this summer. With the increased number of beachgoers due to typical summer visitor season and closure of beaches on the North Shore, this can turn into a rather chaotic scene. (Remember, please do not engage with monk seals, especially in the water, for human safety, as well as, the long-term safety of the monk seal. Let’s keep wild seals wild.) In addition to swimming among snorkelers, RN02 has been observed calling to other resting seals and giving them a good nudge when they don’t respond to his vocalizations. (Maybe he needs to be reminded to, “Let sleeping seals lie.”)

Here’s a sample of a few days in the life of RN02. One recent afternoon, a report was made to the hotline that a monk seal was in a hole. Turns out, RN02 had decided to investigate a rather deep pit that had been dug by children (who had already departed). RN02 stayed there for, at least, three hours. The next day–a windy day–he was, finally, sleeping quietly when a beach umbrella hit him in the head. That was enough to get him to head for the water. The day after that, he was seen agitating a resting R7AA, and the day after that, he coaxed RG22 off the beach to roll around in the shallows together.

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During the week of May 14, 2018, three Hawaiian monk seals were found dead on O`ahu. One was RK60 (Nani) who was born on an islet off Oahu known as Rabbit Island in 2011. She’d given birth to one pup in May of 2017.

The second dead seal was RT10 (Ua Malie) who was born at Turtle Bay to R5AY (known as Honey Girl on Oahu and K01 on Kauai). She’d pupped three times before.

The third dead seal was a small but fully developed pup. NOAA officials feel this pup was born dead and, based on an examination, likely to RT10.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program responded by conducting necropsies on all three and today released the news that the cause of death for all three was toxoplasmosis.

In 2015, Kaua`i-born RB24 (Haupu) died of toxoplasmosis.

B24 scars L head

According to a joint statement from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and Hawaii Department of Health, “The recent deaths of of three critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals on Oahu due to toxoplasmosis is very sad and could have been entirely preventable.”

The rest of the press release reads:

Cats are the only known reproductive host of the toxoplasmosis parasite. It reproduces in the feline digestive system. A single cat can excrete 145 billion eggs per year in its feces. Once released into the environment, these eggs can infect other animals, including humans, both on land and in the ocean. Toxoplasmosis parasites create cysts in muscle and organ tissues and can cause inflammation of the heart, liver, and brain.

Health Director Dr. Bruce Anderson explained that the parasite that NOAA veterinarians found caused the deaths of the seals is far more impactful than just killing seals.” In addition to impacting marine mammals and wildlife, toxoplasmosis is a risk to humans. It is known to cause serious problems for pregnant women and their unborn children,” Anderson said. “During pregnancy, infection by the toxoplasmosis parasite can damage the unborn child, causing miscarriages, stillbirth, or substantial birth defects including enlargement or smallness of the head.

For healthy individuals, symptoms and signs of toxoplasmosis infection are most often benign because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. Very few people will have symptoms similar to the flu and most people probably do not know they have been infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 10 percent of the population in the U.S. six years of age and older have developed antibodies to the parasite from a past infection. However, for those with compromised immune systems, those undergoing chemotherapy or with AIDS, and for pregnant women the disease can be very serious.

“The only thing certain about toxoplasmosis is that there are far more cases in humans and more deaths in seals, dolphins, native birds and other animals today than are recognized and reported,” said Anderson. “Since cats are the only animal that transmit the disease, it only makes sense that reducing the number of feral cats will reduce the risk of infection and serious illness or death,” Anderson added.

DLNR Chair Suzanne Case, is again encouraging people not to feed cats and other animals near water. “In addition to preying on native wildlife, cats pose a significant health risk to people, marine wildlife and birds,” Case explained. Toxoplasmosis can also infect Hawai‘i’s native birds, including the nēnē and the newly released Hawaiian crow, the ʻAlalā.

“Feeding cats near water obviously increases the risk of transmission but, given the nature of the watersheds in Hawai‘i, cats almost anywhere are probably contributing to the problem,” Case said. “The cysts can live for months in soil and can wash into streams and runoff and be carried into the ocean from almost anywhere. Feeding cats at state parks, boat harbors and other coastal areas increases the risk of transmission because the cysts don’t need to travel very far to get into the ocean.” Case added, “Frankly, feeding cats anywhere where their feces can ultimately wash into the ocean is a problem.”

One of the seals, RK60, killed by toxoplasmosis gave birth to a pup on Moku Iki off shore from Lanikai in the spring of 2017. This seal and her pup moved to Moku Nui and were featured in a safe wildlife viewing video produced by DLNR and shown over the past year to thousands of people who rent from Kailua kayak rental firms (see video link below).

In Hawai‘i, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded at least eleven Hawaiian monk seal deaths that are attributable to toxoplasmosis infection since the first confirmed deaths in 2001. Spinner dolphins are the only other marine species that have been documented as dying from toxoplasmosis in Hawai‘i, but there are many other marine mammal species around the world that have also been affected and infections have been linked to the marine food web. This, according to Case and Anderson, should be enough to prompt people to stop feeding feral cats near any bodies of water.

“With only an estimated 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals still in existence, we simply cannot afford to lose even one of these critically endangered mammals to a disease that is preventable. We hope people will provide as much love to our few very special seals as they do to the hundreds of thousands of feral cats around our islands,” Case said.

Multiple tests were conducted on each seal, all of which pointed to toxoplasmosis as cause of death in each case. Toxoplasmosis causes inflammation and disrupts organ function of the blubber, brain, heart, lung, uterus, and for the pup, placenta. Eventually, this led to multiple organ failure and death.

The total number of known monk seal mortalities due to toxoplasmosis is now 11. Toxoplasmosis is the leading cause of disease-related mortality in Hawaiian monk seals and a growing concern for the recovery of the species.

Alongside the growing threat of toxo is the emerging trend whereby more female seals are disproportionately affected–three males and eight females. This exacerbates the impact on the entire species, as each female lost means all her potential future offspring are lost as well.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microscopic protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. It enters the environment when its eggs are shed through the feces of cats. Billions of eggs can be dispersed into the environment from just one cat over a two week period of infection. The eggs remain alive and infectious for months to years after they leave the cat, where they can infect birds and mammals. The disease is responsible for killing native birds like the `alala and nēnē in the terrestrial environment. The organisms can also be washed downstream by rainfall and flow into the nearshore environment, where they infect monk seals as well as spinner dolphins. Because this is a mauka to makai problem, cats that roam and defecate outdoors in any part of the island ecosystem can become carriers and spreaders of toxoplasmosis and ultimately cause the death of native wildlife.

Seals that are sick from toxoplasmosis may not show obvious warning signs of illness, but some have shown subtle indications such as floating lethargically close to shore in areas with calm, protected waters in the past.

A more concerted effort to mitigate the risk of toxoplasmosis to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, as well as other wildlife species, is urgently needed. This primarily requires dealing with the source of environmental contamination: Hawaii has a large population of cats, including hundreds of thousands of feral cats,, that are allowed to freely roam and defecate outside. Infected cats typically do not show any signs of disease themselves. There is currently no vaccine against Toxoplasma gondii in cats. To diminish the threat of toxoplasmosis to seals, the input of organisms into the environment must be reduced, necessitating a significant reduction in the number of feral cats on the islands. Spaying and neutering cats does not change their capacity to perpetuate the parasite and spread it into the environment.

Cats that are kept exclusively indoors have a much lower chance of completing the T. gondii life cycle and are therefore highly unlikely to shed infective oocysts into the environment. Preventing abandonment and keepings cats indoors is best for the welfare of all animals – cats, native birds, monk seals and dolphins.

To learn more about toxoplasmosis, see our post from late March, entitled Toxo Talk.

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Sightings:

The Kauai team logged 33 individually identified monk seals on Kauai in May, for a grand total of 332 sightings. This equates to more than 10 monk seals sighted and reported per day.

New:

  • Juvenile female R7AA hauled out onto roads or parking lots three times in the Poipu area this past month. In order to prevent injury from vehicle traffic she was quickly displaced back onto the beach and into the water.
  • We are currently tracking several pregnant females that we expect to pup any day now. That includes the well known RK30 and a more reclusive seal RK22. Two other females, RH58 and RO28, that are typically on Oahu but come back to their birth beaches on Kauai to pup, are both pregnant and approaching their due dates.

Updates:

  • RK13 gave birth to PK1 at Mahaulepu Beach on 4/20/2018. Extensive monitoring was immediately set-up and continues. Pup weaned after 37 days of nursing. Tagged as RK42. Mother, RK13, became unusually thin prior to weaning, but has been sighted several times since weaning. The pup has begun socializing with other seals, specifically with a 3-year old female bleach-marked V2.

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Last week, PK1 became RK42. She now sports a set of red tags in her rear flippers. The left tag reads K42 and the right tag reads K43. At the same time she was flipper-tagged, morphometric measurements were taken. RK42’s axillary girth (circumference of body just below her fore flippers) came in at 100cm while her length from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail was 126cm.

In other pup news, here is the final report of the necropsy (animal autopsy) of RK52’s pup that was found dead on a North Shore beach on April 24th:

  • The pup’s total length (104.5cm) indicated that it was a full-term pup, and was not premature.
  • Histopathology confirmed the pup as stillborn – in other words, there was no air inflating the lungs and this indicates that it never took a breath of air outside the mother’s uterus.
  • There was also evidence of mild fetal distress (cells and amniotic fluid that were aspirated into the lung tissue) leading to hypoxia (lack of oxygenation of vital tissues). While not severe, this does lead us to conclude that the pup died in utero and likely due to dystocia, or difficulty in the birthing process.
  • Histopathology did not identify any evidence of underlying disease.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon finding, especially for first-time moms like RK52. The hopeful news is that females who lose their first pup in this manner often go on to have healthy pups in subsequent years. The other thing this event reveals is that RK52 is fertile and able to carry a pup to full-term.

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A few weeks ago, we reported the gender of PK1 as male. Well, she fooled both volunteers and veteran monk seal biologists, because more recent photographs reveal that PK is not male. She’s female. That’s good news. It takes more females (than males; sorry guys) to grow the Hawaiian monk seal population. Here’s the photographic evidence.

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See the five dots in the shape reminiscent of the number five on a pair of dice? That’s the tell-tale sign.

In other pup news, we now have a “weaner.” After 37* days of care for her newborn, this pup’s mom, RK13, weaned her not-so-little one. This is normal monk seal biology. During the time from birth to weaning, monk seal moms do not forage. They stick by their pup’s side, nursing them and taking near-shore swims with them. Moms eventually lose half their body weight or more, and hunger drives them back to the sea for nourishment. This is how weaning occurs. Kauai’s first weaner of 2018 will now spend the next few months figuring out what’s good to eat in the sea. Weaners tend to stick around their natal birth site while doing this. Now is also a vulnerable time for new weaners, as they explore their surroundings, both near-shore and on the beach, making it as important as ever to give them wide space to do so safely–away from interactions with humans and dogs.

In the next few weeks, PK will be outfitted with flipper tags. Stay tuned. We’ll announce pup’s official tag numbers once she’s tagged.

Here are a few more photos of PK1’s last days with RK13. (Photo credit J. Thomton.) Note the molting on a couple closeups of the muzzle and tail flippers. You can also see in a few of these the size differential between mom and pup, indicating how much weight mom has lost and how much pup has gained.

 

*UPDATE: The official number of nursing days was changed from 41 to 37. It seems RK13 gradually weaned her pup. She first left her pup for a few hours on Friday and, again, on Saturday and Sunday. As of Sunday evening at sunset, the two had hauled out on the beach about 40 yards from each other. By the next morning, Monday, RK13 was gone. PK1’s first entire day alone was Memorial Day, May 28, 2018.

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