Caribbean Monk Seal

Nondescript Seal of the West Indies, presumed extinct since 1952.

Scientific name: Monachus tropicalis, given by Gray in 1850.

Physical description: Length, 7-8 feet. Brown on the back with a gray tinge.

Behavior: Approachable and unaggressive. Distribution: Caribbean Sea, off Haiti and Jamaica. It formerly extended throughout the northern and western Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Significant sightings: Sixteen out of ninety-three Haitian and Jamaican fishermen interviewed in 1997 claimed to have seen at least one monk seal in the previous two years.

Present status: Five major surveys of former monk seal habitats have been conducted by trained naturalists since 1950, with no definite evidence of the animal's survival past 1952. Possible explanations:

(1) A misidentified California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) that escaped from captivity.

(2) The Hooded seal (Cystophora cristata) occasionally strays as far south as Florida.

(3) The Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) and Harp seal (Phoca groenlandica) are even rarer visitants to the Caribbean.

Source: I. L. Boyd and M. P. Stanfield, "Circumstantial Evidence for the Presence of Monk Seals in the West Indies," Oryx 32 (1998): 310-316.

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