A monk seal is a seal in the genus Monachus. There are three known species in this genus; two monk seal species are endangered, and one is extinct. Researchers who work with monk seals fear that they may vanish entirely without intervention, as they are critically threatened by a variety of factors, from human encroachment to disease. Unlike most seals, the monk seal is a tropical seal, preferring temperate to warm waters.
Monk seals are considered “true seals,” meaning that they are in the earless seal family Phocidae, within the suborder Pinnipedia. Like other earless seals, monk seals have bodies which are specifically adapted for a highly aquatic life, and they tend to be cumbersome on the ground as a result. Their bodies are sleek and lean with powerful flippers adapted for long-distance swimming, and they are covered in a coat of soft insulating fur which keeps their skin from becoming saturated while in the water.
The common name “monk seal” is a reference to the skin folds on the necks of these seals, which do indeed resemble the folds of a monk's hood. Monk seals come in a range of colors, including brown, cream, and gray, with brown monk seals looking especially monkish.
Living monk seals can be found in two places: Hawaii, and the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean monk seal is critically endangered, with a population most recently counted in the hundreds. These seals have been threatened by human activities in the Mediterranean, including fishing, construction, and industrial manufacturing, and they have also been stricken with a disease which wiped out an estimated two thirds of the population in 1997.
Hawaiian monk seals are not critically endangered, but they are still considered endangered, due to increased predation, aggressive fishing around the Hawaiian islands, and human activities. Monk seal populations in Hawaii have become so stressed that cases of “mobbing” have been observed, in which a group of males pursues a single female, sometimes killing or severely injuring her by accident.
The extinct monk seal species is the Caribbean or West Indian monk seal, which was last seen in 1952.