The recently extinct Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) was one of three species of monk seal in the world. Its relationship to the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals, both living but endangered, has never been fully understood. Through DNA analysis and skull comparisons, however, Smithsonian scientists and colleagues have now clarified the Caribbean species' place on the seal family tree and created a completely new genus. The team's findings are published in the scientific journal ZooKeys.
First reported by Columbus in 1494, the Caribbean monk seal ranged throughout the Caribbean with an estimated population in the hundreds of thousands. Unrestricted hunting in the 19th century, however, caused a rapid decline in numbers. The last definite sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952, making it the most recent extinction of a marine mammal in the Western Hemisphere.
To find the answers about the classification of the Caribbean monk seal, the scientists turned to DNA extracted from century-old monk seal skins in the Smithsonian's collections. For the DNA comparisons, the Smithsonian team worked with scientists at the Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany and Fordham University in New York. Their analyses showed that the Caribbean species was more closely related to the Hawaiian rather than the Mediterranean monk seal. It also showed that Caribbean and Hawaiian monk seals split into distinct species around 3 to 4 million years ago―the same time the Panamanian Isthmus closed off the connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which would have naturally separated the two.
"Scientists have long understood that monk seals are very special
|Contact: John Gibbons|