Monachus tropicalis


Kingdom Animalia

Captive Caribbean monk seal of unknown sex at the New York Aquarium in ca. 1910.  Specimen originally captured from either Arrecife´s Tria´ngulos (Campeche) or Arrecife Alacra´n (Yucatan) in Mexico (Townsend 1909). New York Zoological Society, 1910. Unknown copyright licence.


Plate 19, showing the West Indian Seal (Monachus tropicalis). From "The Fisheries and Fisheries Industries of the United States", by George Brown Goode (1887). This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Phylum Chordata 
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Phocidae
Genus Monachus
Species Monachus tropicalis
Authority (Gray, 1850)
TEW Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2010
IUCN Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2008
English Name

Caribbean Monk Seal, West Indian Seal

Chinese Name 加勒比僧海豹
Dutch Name Caribische Monniksrob
Finnish Name Floridanmunkkihylje
French Name Phoque Moine des Caraïbes
German Name Karibische Mönchsrobbe
Hungarian Name Karibi Barátfóka
Italian Name Foca Monaca dei Caraibi
Japanese Name カリブモンクアザラシ
Korean Name 카리브해몽크물범
Polish Name Mniszka Antylska
Portuguese Name Foca Monge das Caraíbas
Russian Name Карибский тюлень-монах
Spanish Name Foca Fraile del Caribe
Swedish Name Västindisk Munksäl
Synonyms Phoca tropicalis Gray, 1850
Taxonomy The Caribbean monk seal is monotypic (has no subspecies). According to Kenyon and Rice (1959) might the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) be a subspecies of the Caribbean monk seal. (Adam 2004)
Characteristics Males are thought to have reached a length of 2,1 to 2,4 metres and weighed up to 200 kilograms. Displaying sexual dimorphism, the females of this species were generally smaller than males. This species has rolls of fat around its neck. The backs of adult seals were brown with a grey tinge. The underside was pale yellow, as was the muzzle. The soles and palms were naked, with the nails on the anterior digits well developed. The fur of newborns was long and dark. Evidence suggests that the pups were weighing between 16 and 18 kg, and measuring up to 1m in length. (Wikipedia contributors 2006)
Lifestyle The Caribbean monk seal was spending much of their time in the water, and occupying rocky and sandy coastlines for shelter and breeding (Wikipedia contributors 2006). This monk seal did not appear to fear distant humans or boats, but entered water after being closely approached by men (0.9-1.8- m distance) or boats (Adam 2004).
Range & Habitat The Caribbean monk seal once inhabited the Caribbean Sea, northwest to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as from the Bahamas to the Yucatan Peninsula, south along the Central American coast and east to the northern Antilles. Extralimital records and fossil remains from the southeastern United States also exist. These pinnipeds lived in marine environment.  

Image: historic range (red) map of the Caribbean monk seal. Created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 3.0 Licence.

Food Their diet included eels, lobsters, octopus, and other reef fish. (Wikipedia contributors 2006) Captive Caribbean monk seals were fed fish cut into small pieces and crabs. (Adam 2004)
Reproduction Very little is known about the reproduction behaviour and longevity of this animal. All monk seals rest and give birth on sandy coasts, on remote islands or undisturbed beaches of the mainland. Pups were likely born in early December because several females killed in the Yucatan during this time of the year had well-developed foetuses. It is believed that this animal's average lifespan was approximately 20 years. (Wikipedia contributors, 2006)
History & Population Evidence now suggests that the pinnipeds first appeared in the north-eastern Pacific, along the coast of present-day California, some 23 million years ago. Initially, they radiated throughout the North Pacific, eventually entering the Atlantic Ocean via the Central American Seaway, an ancient waterway that once separated North and South America. (Lavigne & Johnson, 2001)

There remains a great deal of conflicting thought on the evolution of the monk seal. Gilmartin and Forcada (2002) offer the hypothesize that the species originated in the North Atlantic during the middle Miocene epoch, 15 million years ago with the Hawaiian monk seal (M. schauinslandi) likely descending from the extinct Caribbean monk seal (M. tropicalis), with the Mediterrean monk seal(M. monachus) the basal taxon. (Overgard, 2003)

However, Berta and Sumich (1999) offer another hypothesis that concurs with molecular studies done by Arnason et al. (1995). It identifies M. schauinslandi as the sister taxon, or closest relative, to the other monk seals implying the converse of the previous idea and suggesting that M. tropicalis descended from M. schauinslandi or that M. tropicalis and M. monachus evolved concurrently. Molecular sequencing data supports this theory, but Monachus data is limited to the Hawaiian species and therefore leaves unanswered questions. (Overgard, 2003)

Evolutionists tend to disagree on the 'natural history' of seals, sea lions and walruses, but based on the primitive and unspecialised skeletal and vascular anatomy of monk seals, agree that the 'earliest' fossil records, supposedly 20 million years old, reveal seals that look very much like monk seals alive today. So much so that monk seals are often referred to as 'living fossils' because 'they have remained virtually unchanged for 15 million years'.

The Caribbean monk seal was the first New World mammal to be discovered by Columbus and his company on the coast of Santo Domingo in 1494. It appears in the account of Columbus' second voyage to America. Columbus promptly ordered his crew to kill eight of the animals, which he called "sea-wolves", for food, paving the way for exploitation of the species by European immigrants who came in his wake. Since then, the once abundant seals have been hunted for their oil and slaughtered by fishermen, who regarded the animals as competitors.

H. Sloan wrote in 1707: "The Bahama Islands are filled with seals; sometimes fishers will catch one hundred in a night". The Caribbean monk seal was documented as being easily approachable and not aggressive. They were easily killed during directed hunts in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also known that sailors, whalers, and fishers opportunistically killed the seals they encountered. As well, Caribbean monk seals were killed by museum collectors and displayed in zoos. The end of the 19th century witnessed relentless slaughters and the species had already become rare in the 1880's, before it was properly known to science. The Triangle Keys have remained a stronghold of the species until 1915, when about 200 animals were butchered there. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999)

The last confirmed sighting in 1952 was of a small colony on Seranilla Bank, a group of tiny coral islands halfway between Jamaica and Honduras (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999). An aerial survey in 1973, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, found extensive fishing activity throughout the former range of this seal. A later cruise through the Gulf of Mexico and around the Yucatan Peninsula failed to find any Caribbean monk seals in the area. Surveys have been carried out as late as 1993, all without success. The Caribbean monk seal was formally declared extinct in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals.

Based on interviews with 93 fishermen in northern Haiti and Jamaica during 1997 Boyd and Stanfield (1998) made an assessment of the likelihood that monk seals survive in this region of the West Indies. Those fishermen that were able to provide further descriptions gave information about size and colour that was consistent with many of these seals being monk seals. They concluded that it is possible that the Caribbean monk seal is not extinct. (Boyd & Stanfield, 1998)

Local fishermen and divers regularly claim to have seen the seal, making the existence of this animal still a possibility, though some biologists believe that these sightings may surely be of wandering hooded seals, which have been positively been identified in islands such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It appears that the hooded seals are increasingly straying far into new territories, even those a long distance away from their home in the far north, and are visiting the tropical beaches previously enjoyed by the sadly demised Caribbean monk seal. (Mignucci-Giannoni & Haddow, 2001; Wikipedia contributors, 2006)

Extinction Causes All monk seal species appear to be sensitive to disturbance, and early habitat exclusion by humans throughout their range may have exacerbated their decline. Like other true seals, the Caribbean Monk Seal was sluggish on land. This, along with its lack of fear for man, and an unaggressive and curious behaviour, likely contributed to its demise. (Wikipedia contributors, 2006)
Conservation Attempts The Jamaican Wild Life Law offered the first legal protection to the Caribbean monk seal. Nonetheless, occasional individuals subsequently straying onto Jamaican shores were nearly always slaughtered. In 1949, he International Conference of the Protection of Nature (United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources) included the Caribbean monk seal in a list of 14 mammals whose survival was considered to be a matter of international concern and which required immediate protection. (Adam 2004)

The Caribbean monk seal is since 1977 designated as Endangered in the Entire Range by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was first listed on March 11, 1967. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists this marine mammal as extinct.

Within historic times, 18 Caribbean monk seals have been held in captivity on 8 separate occasions. None bred in captivity (Adam 2004). Nowadays none survive in captivity.

Museum Specimens There are several preserved remains of this species. The type specimen is in the collection of the British Museum. The Museum of Natural History ‘Naturalis’ in Leiden, the Netherlands, has a mounted skin and its skull. The Leiden specimen was purchased in 1887 from the Amsterdam dealer G.A. Frank. This specimen was collected by H.L. Ward, who visited the Triangle Keys in Campeche Bay, Mexico, on four days in December 1886. Ward killed 49 monk seals, of which 34 skins and seven skeletons were secured. This material constituted the first good series of scientific specimens. The American Museum of Natural History in New York acquired three skins, and adult male and female and a pup. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999) The National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has also remains (Adam 2004). A collection of Caribbean Monk Seal bones can be found at the Tropical Crane Point Hammock Museum in Key Vaca, Florida, U.S.A. (Wikipedia contributors, 2006). 
Co-extinction The only parasite identified from the extinct Caribbean Monk Seal is the nasal mite Halarachne americana, recovered in great numbers and in all stages of its life cycle from the respiratory passages of a single captive specimen. H. americana is only known from the Caribbean Monk Seal, and after the extinction of the seal in 1952 this mite has become extinct too. (Adam 2004)
Relatives Image: Hawaiian monk seal and pup. This image is the work of an U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken during the course of an employee's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Monk seals are pinnipeds, a group of marine carnivores that includes true seals, fur seals, sea lions and the walrus. In historical times only three species of monk seal existed, occurring far apart in tropical and subtropical waters: one species on either side of the North Atlantic and a third in the Hawaiian Archipelago in the tropical pacific. With the expansion of man to even the most faraway islands, the group seems doomed. The Mediterranean and Hawaiian species are rapidly declining in numbers and will follow the Caribbean monk seal, unless they will be better protected. The two other Monk Seal species are the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) and the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi).  


IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Monachus tropicalis.

University of Michigan – Animal Diversity Web – Monachus tropicalis – Caribbean Monk Seal.

Seal Conservation Society (SCS): Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis). – Caribbean Monk Seal – Monachus tropicalis.

Extinct Stock Photography.

Foca monje del Caribe – Monachus tropicalis.

References Adam, P.J. 2004. Monachus tropicalis. Mammalian Species, 747: 1-9. American Society of Mammalogists. (Available online)

Berta, A., and Sumich J.L. 1999. Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology. Academic Press. San Diego, California, U.S.A.

Boyd, I. L., and Stanfield, M. P. 1998. Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies. Oryx, 32 [n° 4] : 310-316.

Allen, J.A. 1890. The West Indian Seal (Monachus tropicalis Gray). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. Volume II. Article I. Pages 1-35. 1887-90. New York.

Gilmartin, William G., and Jaume Forcada. 2002. Monk Seals in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, eds. Perrin, William F., Bernd Würsig, and J. G. M. Thewissen. Academic Press. San Diego, CA. 756-759.

Lavigne, D.M. & Johnson, W.M. 2001. Hanging by a thread. BBC Wildlife Magazine, August 2001, pp. 54-60. Available online at

Mignucci-Giannoni , A.A. & Haddow, P. 2001. Caribbean monk seals or hooded seals? The Monachus Guardian. Vol. 4 (2). Available online at

Miller, D., Seals & Sea Lions, Voyager Press, Stillwater, MN, USA, p. 7, 1998

Monachus, 1999. Profiles: Caribbean Monk Seal, Monachus tropicalis <> Downloaded on 24 April 2006 from

Overgard, I. (Edited by B. Holzman, PhD) 2003. The Biogeography of  the Hawaiian Monk Seal. San Fransicso State University. Available online at

Seal Specialist Group. 1996. Monachus tropicalis. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <>. Downloaded on 24 April 2006.

Towsend, C. H. 1909. The West Indian Seal at the aquarium. Science (New York) 30:212.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. Species Profile for Caribbean monk seal. Downloaded on 24 April 2006 from

Van den Hoek Ostende, L.W. 1999. Caribbean monk seal - An easy catch. 300 Pearls - Museum highlights of natural diversity. Downloaded on 24 April 2006.

Wikipedia contributors. 2006. Caribbean Monk Seal. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:21, April 24, 2006 from

Last updated: 3th March 2010.

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