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The Caribbean Monk Seal or West Indian Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) is an extinct species of seal. It is the only seal ever known to be native to the Caribbean seamarker and the Gulf of Mexicomarker. The last verified recorded sighting occurred in 1952 at Serranilla Bankmarker. On June 6, 2008, after five years of futile efforts to find or confirm sightings of any Caribbean monk seals, the U.S. government announced that the species is officially extinct and the only seal to vanish due to human causes.

A collection of Caribbean Monk Seal bones can be found at the Tropical Crane Point Hammock Museum in Key Vacamarker.

Physical appearance

The Caribbean Monk Seal was a relatively large seal (1.8-2.7 m) with rolls of fat around its neck and brown pelage that faded to a yellow-white color on the stomach. The soles and palms were naked, with the nails on the anterior digits well developed. The males reached a length of about 3.25 meters and weighed up to 200 kilograms. Displaying sexual dimorphism, the females of this species were generally smaller than males.

Behavior and ecology

These pinnipeds lived in marine environment, spending much of their time in the water and occupying rocky and sandy coastlines for shelter and breeding. Their diet included lobsters, octopus, and reef fish.

Like other true seals, the Caribbean Monk Seal was sluggish on land. Its lack of fear for man and an unaggressive and curious nature also contributed to its demise.

Reproduction and longevity

Very little is known about the reproduction behavior and longevity of this animal. Live pups were likely born in early December because several females killed in the Yucatanmarker during this time of the year had well-developed fetuses. It is believed that this animal's average lifespan was approximately 20 years.

History

Drawing of Monachus tropicalis.
During his 1494 voyage, Christopher Columbus described the Caribbean Monk Seal as a "sea-wolf." During that voyage, eight seals were killed for their meat. The region was soon colonized, and whatever habitat this species had was lost. People also began exploiting it commercially for its oil, and less frequently, for its meat. It went extinct in the 1950s from lack of food.

Sightings

In the United Statesmarker, the last recorded sighting of this marine mammal occurred in 1932 off the Texasmarker coast. The very last reliable records of this species are of a small colony at Serranilla Bankmarker between Hondurasmarker and Jamaicamarker in 1952.

Unconfirmed sightings of Caribbean Monk Seals by local fishermen and divers are relatively common in Haitimarker and Jamaicamarker, but two recent scientific expeditions failed to find any sign of this animal. It is possible that the mammal still exists, but some biologists strongly believe that the sightings are of wandering Hooded Seals, which have been positively identified on archipelagos such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On April 22, 2009, The History Channel aired an episode of Monster Quest which hypothesized that an unidentified sea creature videotaped in the Intracoastal Waterway of Florida's southeastern coast could possibly be the extinct Carribbean Monk Seal. No conclusive evidence has yet emerged in support of this contention, however, and opposing hypotheses asserted the creature was simply a misidentified, yet common to the area, West Indian Manatee.

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