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Posts Tagged ‘Hawaiian monk seal’

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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Sightings:

The Kauai team logged 303 seal sightings this month. This included 30 individually identified seals.

April: 303
March: 299
Feb: 259
Jan: 336

New:

  • RK13 gave birth to PK1 on 4/20/2018. Extensive monitoring was immediately set-up and continues. Unfortunately, the location is notorious for off-leash dogs and past conflict between beach users and the monk seal program. Thus far, only minor issues have risen. Pup continues to thrive.
  • RK52 gave birth to stillborn female pup. This was RK52’s first birth. Carcass was sent to Oahu for necropsy.

Updates:

  • NG00 was re-sighted once this month and is likely still hooked. (See previous monthly updates for background.)
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: 2 displacements took place this month.
  • Bleach markings: 2 seals bleach marked this month.
  • Molting activity: one seal continues to molt this month.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center:

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

 

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PK1 is 3.5 weeks old today, and he’s healthy-looking, active, and spending more and more time swimming. His routine of late finds him exploring the nearshore waters in the mornings and sleeping on the sand in the afternoons. Such is the life of a young Hawaiian monk seal pup.

Here’s a sweet sequence of images of PK1 and his mom RK13. You can also see how mom is losing weight, the natural course of a nursing monk seal mom’s biology. Her rib and shoulder bones are starting to become visible. She basically fasts the entire time she nurses her pup–all the while he packs on the pounds. Eventually, hunger will drive her to the sea to forage, at which point, he’ll be weaned.

Now, enjoy the slide show. (Photo credit goes to Jamie Thomton.)

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RK13andPK1aOur “old girl” RK13 with the blind left eye up and surprised everyone on Friday when she decided to pup at a location she’s never pupped at before! (Just when we think we know the ways and habits of these seals, they up and do something new and different–even “old” ones!) In weeks prior, RK13 was looking very pregnant, so her new pup was expected, just not her chosen location. However, she chose a good spot, considering the  rainstorms and flooding of late. For mom’s and pup’s safety, the exact beach location is not being publicized at this time. The (P)update is that young one is healthy, and mom took to nursing and protecting it right away! She has plenty experience, after all.

The biggest concern for this mother/pup pair are loose dogs, which have attacked attacked seals and pups in this location before. That said, volunteers are needed to gently and respectfully reach out to folks who may have their dogs off-leash. During the first few weeks the pup is small and slow moving, so dogs are a very real threat to the pup, and Hawaii state law is very clear–all dogs must be leashed at all times on state lands. Later, once the mom and pup start swimming, outreach and focus will shift to humans swimming in the area, as mothers are very protective and often view swimmers as threats to their pups.

RK13andPK1bIf you are a trained volunteer and would like to get back in the pup-sitting fold, please call our hotline at 808-651-7668. And if you have never volunteered before but would like to start now, call the same number. Volunteers are always needed and greatly appreciated.

(If you’d like to know more information about RK13, scroll down to the bottom of this post where it says, “Posted in” and click on “RK13.” That will return every report of RK13 every made on this website. Happy reading!)

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Sightings:

The Kauai team logged 336 seal sightings this month. This included 34 individually identified seals.

Jan:336
Dec: 270
Nov: 239
Oct: 225
Sep: 354

New Issues:

  • R376, adult female, hooked with small j-hook in lip. Hook came out without intervention several days later.
  • One new juvenile male, untagged and unknown, sighted on West Side.

Updates on previously reported issues:

  • R7AA, juvenile female, was observed with a moderate injury to right cheek, possibly a hook pull-out or moray eel bite. Antibiotics were given. Close monitoring continued, wound currently healing.
  • NG00, sub-adult male, was observed with a circle hook in lower right lip. Sighted on Niihau in January. Photos match pictures sent in by fisherman along Kaumakani in September of a hooked seal. Seal in good condition. Hook not life threatening. Will attempt to de-hook next time hauled out on sand.
  • Poipu Keiki Pool: 3 seals displaced from Keiki Pool.
  • Morbillivirus vaccinations: All vaccines on Kauai have expired. No further vaccinations will occur for the time being.
  • Bleach markings: 1 seal bleach marked this month.
  • Molting activity: no seals molted this month.

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Last fall, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program placed dive recording tags on two monk seals that make their home in Kauai waters. We briefly wrote about it here. During one recording period, the two seals (R1KT and R7AA) both made numerous dives deeper than 150 meters (492 feet). One bottomed out at 170 meters (557 feet) and the other at close to 200 meters (656 feet).

These are mammals diving to 500 feet on a single breath of air. But that’s not unusual for monk seals. In fact, the deepest known dive for a monk seal occurred in 2003 when scientists in a Pisces submersible descended to a depth of 543 meters (1,781 feet). They were studying deep sea corals, submarine canyons, and seamounts when a Hawaiian monk seal swam into their field of view. The on-board microphone captured their reaction. It went like this:

“Whoa.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s a monk seal.”

“Oh my god.”

“No way.”

“Look it. Right in front of us.”

“No way.”

“Oh my god.”

So, how do they do it? How do monk seals dive to depths of 1,781 feet?

There are numerous physiological responses involved; collectively the process that allows monk seals to dive deep is known as “mammalian diving reflex.” It involves the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Typically, before a dive, seals exhale completely. This allows their lungs to completely collapse and avoid gas transfer at depth that could cause nitrogen narcosis. Then, holding their breath, the heartbeat slows from about 125 beats per minute to as low as 10 beats per minute. This is known as bradycardia. A slowing heart rate reduces oxygen consumption. Too, blood is diverted from the limbs and all organs except the heart and brain. This is known as blood shift. It’s accomplished through a process known as peripheral vasoconstriction. Too, diving mammals have high blood volume. That is, elevated hemoglobin and myoglobin levels, which provides greater oxygen storage. The whole idea is to conserve oxygen consumption, so the seal can dive deeper and longer.

Simply, they can hold their breath, slow their heart rate, and direct blood to just the heart and brain. This also helps explain their torpedo-like shape and abbreviated pectoral fins.

Here’s a video of that astonishing 1,781-foot-diving monk seal.

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To the casual beachgoer in Hawaii, one Hawaiian monk seal can look just like the next. What appears to be a male monk seal could be a female, and a “mother and baby” pair may actually be juvenile and a newly-weaned pup tumbling in the shore break. Such mistakes are common in the calls to our hotline.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.31 PMBut when someone calls our hotline to report a seal on Kaua‘i that “has something around its neck,” the seal almost always turns out to be a familiar female known as RK30. If there’s one seal that represents the challenges a monk seal faces in her lifetime, it’s RK30. She is the “poster seal” of monk seal threats.

RK30 first made her presence known in a dramatic way, and she hasn’t stopped, hauling out on virtually every beach around Kaua‘i in the more than 18 years since we first spotted her, even pushing through throngs of people in the water and onshore to find a place to rest at busy sites along the South Shore and East Side.

It all started in 2005 when she was first identified by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and it was that “thing around her neck” that got everyone’s attention. It was suspected to be entanglement with a piece of thick line. This was in the early days of these kinds of responses in the Main Hawaiian Islands, and a team gathered and boated to a remote beach along Nā Pali Coast. But RK30 wanted nothing to do with their help. She was already a strong, powerful adult, and she quickly evaded our team.

Luckily, our vet at the time, Dr. Bob Braun, was able to get a good look at RK30 and positively confirm that she had been entangled, but—here’s the good news—that she’d already freed herself of the entanglement. It took a while for her to shake loose of the rope, as evidenced by the remaining, dramatic scar. It suggests the line had been around RK30’s neck for some time—long enough to leave a permanent indentation around her neck that, upon first glance, still looks like she’s entangled today. Luckily, RK30 slipped her noose before a deadly infection could set in and kill her.

Looking back, this was our first sign that RK30 is the extreme survivor she’s turned out to be, because the entanglement scar isn’t her only indication of a brush with death. In addition, she has boat propeller scars on her belly and a large scar on her left side from a possible encounter with a large shark. On top of all that, she has a constellation of 13 cookie-cutter shark bite scars on her body.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.47.19 PMRK30’s skill at evading death has helped her species in significant ways—primarily, by adding to the species. To our knowledge, RK30 has birthed at least nine pups. Unfortunately, not all her offspring have survived the way she has. One was lost as a very young pup when a late-season swell washed it out to sea. Another died as a juvenile after ingesting a fishing hook. Her oldest known living offspring is RW06, a female, regularly seen along Kaua‘i’s South Shore and nearing reproductive age.

RK30 was pregnant with another pup (RH38) in 2016 when she was harassed by a man while she was resting out at the ocean’s edge. The man—with a long list of other run-ins with the law—was eventually sentenced to four years in prison by Hawai‘i’s Environmental Court. This was the first conviction under the state’s felony endangered species harassment statue, legislation that was initiated by a few stalwart monk seal supporters and introduced by then-Senator, Gary Hooser in 2010 after a spate of intentional killings of monk seals. A few days after RK30’s encounter with the intoxicated man, she gave birth to a healthy RH38 at one of her regular pupping sites along Nā Pali Coast. And she gave birth to another pup in 2017.

During the more than 13 years we’ve tracked RK30 around Kaua‘i, she’s exhibited some unique behaviors. As tolerant as she generally appears to be around humans, she is no pushover. She’ll bark and lunge at those humans who agitate her. She’s also been witnessed logging just offshore in shallow, calm waters. Too, we’ve received frequent reports of her associating with Green sea turtles—pushing them around, flipping the in the air, gnawing at them. But no reports of her killing or eating one.

We have no doubt that monk seals will continue to surprise us in the future. We just hope it’s not RK30. She’s made enough headlines, although we’d be happy to see her pass on her genes to a half-dozen more or so pups in the remainder of her years.

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