Friday, November 25, 2011

Caribbean Monk Seals - Are They Really Extinct?

The story of the Caribbean monk seal is a really sad one. It is also integral to one of the ugliest periods in human history. Before the 1490's, the Caribbean monk seal thrived across the entire Caribbean region. In fact, its range spilled over into the Gulf of Mexico at least as far north as the Texas and Florida coastlines. It had no competition in its ecological niche as it was the only seal that lived in the entire region. Its only major predator was the shark. It was hunted and eaten seasonally by the native Taino people, but not at a level that affected its population numbers significantly. However, life for the Caribbean monk seal changed dramatically upon the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 1490's which ushered in the "Colonial Age" where the New World was conquered and colonized by waves of Europeans.
You see, the Caribbean monk seal had something that the European colonists wanted and wanted bad: OIL. The Caribbean monk seal had rolls of blubber around its neck and all over its body. Liquid oil could be easily processed out of the blubber. This seal oil was used in lamps for light, for cooking, for sealing the bottom of ships, for curing leather, and for lubricating the machinery required to process sugar cane into sugar. The first Caribbean monk seals to be killed by the colonists were in 1494 when Christopher Columbus ordered his men to kill eight seals on an island in what is now the Dominican Republic - so the Dominican Republic is at the center of where it all began.
Sugar plantations were cash cows for those who were colonizing the Caribbean region of the New World (then called the West Indies) and the first ones were quickly established and already in business by the end of the 1490's. By the middle of the 1600's, the sugar plantations had gotten quite large and they needed massive quantities of oil to lubricate the machinery. To get this oil, they would regularly send out a party of men at night to kill as many as 100 seals as they rested quietly on the beaches. The Caribbean monk seal was extremely docile so they put up no resistance.The non-stop slaughter of the Caribbean monk seals continued into the 1800's. However, by the 1850's the seal population had been so depleted, there were not enough seals left to make commercially harvesting them for oil feasible. If all of the killing had come to a complete stop in the 1850's, the species may have recovered even though its population was depleted to less than 5-10% of the original population.
However, the killing of the few seals that did remain continued. Some were killed for their meat and their skins. Others were killed and collected by scientific expeditions as scientific studies were conducted very differently in those days. Others were collected by private collectors who were aware that the species was becoming increasingly more rare. In fact, it was a very popular activity amongst the wealthy in those days to assemble collections of rare and exotic specimens. In the late 1800's, there were no laws in place to protect a threatened or endangered species like we have today and also no laws to protect its habitat which was also becoming degraded.
The Caribbean monk seal definitely persisted into the 1900's, albeit in very low numbers. Sightings of this beautiful creature became increasingly rare. The last verified sighting of a Caribbean monk seal occurred in 1952 at a place called the Seranilla Bank, located about half-way between Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula. It is important to note specifically the use of the phrase, "verified sighting." A "verified sighting" is one which is confirmed by someone who is considered an expert in the field. However, in every decade since the 1950's, there have been many informal or "unverified" sightings of the Caribbean monk seal. Keep this is mind because it is very important to the question of whether or not this species is really extinct.
Officially, the Caribbean monk seal has been declared extinct. First, in 1996 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared it extinct in its annually published "Red List of Threatened Animals." Second, in 2003, the US NOAA's Fisheries Service placed a notice in the Federal Register letting people know that they were considering removing the Caribbean monk seal from the US Endangered Species List and declaring it extinct. As procedure requires, they requested public comment. In 2008, after various sources of evidence had been considered, the US government also declared the Caribbean monk seal extinct.
Now, does this mean the Caribbean monk seal is really extinct?
Is there any hope left for finding Caribbean monk seals alive and well in nature? Well, yes there is and I'd like to explain why. Just because a species has been officially declared to be extinct, it may not necessarily be true.
Sea otters provide a really good example of a marine mammal species that was thought by all the experts to be extinct but it turned out not to be true! Sea otters were hunted to the of brink of extinction in the late 1700's and 1800's because they have the densest fur in the world. This was a very desirable commodity and very profitable in a world that only consisted of natural fiber clothing. So, as cute and wonderful as sea otters are, almost every one of them was shot and collected for their fur. Even after they became very rare, if one was spotted, hunters would immediately track it down and shoot it. After this onslaught, decades went by with not a single verified sighting of a sea otter. In fact, it was well accepted in the scientific community that they were extinct
Then one magical day, the expert notion of the sea otter being extinct was proven to be wrong. It happened when a retired gentleman was using his telescope to spot ships from his porch in rural and rugged Big Sur California. He looked through his scope and to his surprise, he found a pod of sea otters near the Bixby Bridge. He contacted Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station but they didn't believe him at first. In fact, no one believed him at first but eventually he convinced them to come take a look for themselves and thus the "unverified sighting" of a species thought to be extinct became a "verified sighting." The sea otter story is one of the most heart warming and inspiring stories in the field of conservation.
So, after several decades of all the experts believing that the sea otter was extinct, it was proven that this species had somehow managed to hang on by a thread and had somehow gone unnoticed for several decades. It's really a pretty amazing story when you think about it and it could just as easily happen with the Caribbean monk seal if more people start looking and we get a little lucky too. A small population of Caribbean monk seals may be hiding out there somewhere in the Caribbean. In fact, in 2009 the History Channel proposed that they had footage of one in the Intracoastal Waterway in Southern Florida - not everyone agreed by the way as the video was a bit dark and blurry but it is an exciting possibility to consider and should spark more interest in looking. Of course, if the Caribbean monk seal is re-discovered with undisputed documented proof, it will make people all over the world sing for joy.
What I think is also amazing about the sea otter story is it proves that you do not have to be a scientist or any sort of expert on marine mammals to be the lucky person who re-discovers a species thought to be extinct. Literally, anyone could do so. You just have to have an open mind and start looking.
Subsistence fishermen, commercial fishermen, professional divers, recreational divers, and others have all claimed they have seen seals in the Caribbean. Since the Caribbean monk seal is the only native seal to the area, chances are good if you see a seal in this region that you are looking at a Caribbean monk seal. However, I should add two important caveats. First, arctic hooded seals have been found in a few cases to have wandered as far south as the Caribbean. This has only happened in recent years and it is still quite rare but if you see a seal in the Caribbean, it is possible that it is a hooded seal from the arctic. Second, occasionally sea lions escape captivity and end up wandering around in the Caribbean too. If you see a seal in the Caribbean and it is sounds like a dog barking, then it is probably an escaped sea lion.
So, if you like to vacation in Punta Cana like so many people do, or in another spot in the Caribbean, and you take a snorkeling or boat excursion, you should definitely keep your eyes open for seals. If you see one, don't worry at first about identifying it. The most helpful thing you could do is immediately grab your camera and take as many pictures as you possibly can from as many different angles as you can. Video would be even better. Once you have documented it, find out exactly where you are and contact the appropriate agencies and send them copies of your documentation (don't send them your only copy!). Then, follow-up to make sure the right people get to see your documentation as things do sometimes get inadvertently lost in the shuffle.
Since the mass slaughter of Caribbean monk seals began in the Dominican Republic, it would seem particularly fitting if they were re-discovered somewhere in or near the Dominican Republic. However, I encourage you to try to get pictures or video of any seal you see anywhere in the Caribbean or in the Gulf of Mexico as it could very well be a Caribbean monk seal and you should try to document it if at all possible. If you found one, you would leave the world quite a legacy. Plus, the search itself is quite exciting!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Discover Nature and Wildlife Within The Natural World

You can find a wide range of God's creatures on mother earth, anything from beetles and fungi, reptiles and wild birds to hedgehogs, moles and domestic dogs and cats. Each of these and many more, play their part in the creation and maintenance of our world. Why not find out about our natural world in a varied range of nature books. Naturally, everybody could do their bit in order that the natural world continues to sustain life, not just the life of mankind but the miles and miles of plant life and forests, the birds and wildlife in the midst of it and not forgetting the polar ice caps, which is also home to a variety of animals, such as polar bears and penguins.
Our journey through the natural world category gets underway with the beetle. A beetle is an insect that has a hard outer covering and with roughly 4,000 different species in Britain alone could make them the commonest animal worldwide. They feed on numerous types of food that include plants, fungi and leaf litter. Beetles come in quite a lot of different colours that gives camouflage from predators. The beetle family comprises of ladybirds, stag beetles, devils coach horses, whirligig beetles, woodworm (or furniture beetles), dung beetles, scarab beetles, weevils, water beetles and longhorn beetles.
Human beings are exposed to nature everywhere we go and we're straightaway surrounded by it whenever we step foot outside, in our gardens, which gets visited by a variety of insects and birds every day, perhaps even nightingales. The nightingale feeds mainly on insects as they are insectivores and they also love to sing at night as well as during the day. Most other birds normally only sing when it is light.
They are secretive birds that live in open broad-leaved woodlands, heaths, coppices and thick undergrowth. Like the beetles above their drab brown colour acts as good camouflage which makes them difficult to see, however they can always be heard because of their distinctive song.
With its small, brown, spiky body the hedgehog is one of the most familiar wild mammals. They can be spotted in parks and gardens under bushes and hedges in the daytime. Although once dusk arrives they love to go off in search of insect rich lawns and flower beds in order to feed. Hedgehogs are known as the gardener's best friend as they love to munch on big, crunchy beetles, earthworms and slugs.
The badger is easily recognisable especially with its black and white striped face and is our biggest land predator. The badger family includes stoats, weasels and otters. The badger is known to be a nocturnal animal which lives in a burrow known as a sett. They will feed on small mammals, ground-nesting birds eggs, earthworms, fruit and roots and bulbs, which they dig up with their strong front paws.
Our journey through the natural world category concludes with the Amazon rainforest which is described as the 'lungs of the earth' as it is able to continuously recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen producing around 20% of the world's supply. The rainforest covers over a billion acres of land and if it were classed as a country it would be about the ninth largest in the natural world.
It is from the rainforest that at least 80% of the developed world's diet originated, giving us fruit, vegetables, spices, sugar cane, coffee and nuts such as Brazil and cashews. The rainforests not only provide some of the foods we eat but many of the plants there have been proven to be of great medicinal value and many of which have been found to be active against cancer cells.
The natural world is truly an amazing and inspiring place in which we can discover the many plants, animals and fungi that live all around us and the rocks, fossils and minerals inside the planet we walk on.