Critically Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Found With Deadly Toxin

monk seal photo

Photo by USFWS Pacific via Flickr CC

NOAA researchers are working on learning more about a worrying threat for the Hawaiian monk seal -- a deadly toxin that created by the marine algae on coral reefs, ciguatoxin. While the toxin impacts thousands of humans every year, researchers are worried that it could be a threat to the survival of a species that is only about 1,200 animals strong.

monk seal sign photo

Photo by AustarR via Flickr CC
Consortium for Ocean Leadership reports that ciguatoxin causes an illness called ciguatera in humans, which results in an acute illness resembling chronic fatigue syndrome. The toxin is created by marine algae in coral reefs, which the monk seals are constantly exposed to as they hunt among coral beds for fish, lobster, octopus and squid. Because the seals are already declining at roughly 4% per year, the exposure to the toxin could be a real problem.

"Based upon this study, we believe that ciguatoxin exposure is common in the monk seal population," said Charles Littnan, study co-author and scientist with NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. "This study is an important first step. However, we still need to understand more clearly how widespread exposure is and more importantly what role it may be playing in the decline of the species."

monk seals photo

Photo by NOAA photo library via Flickr CC

The Hawaiian monk seal and Mediterranean monk seal are the only two remaining monk seal species, and the Hawaiian monk seal is the only seal species native to the islands. Their survival is a rough road, as they face human encroachment on their habitat, entanglement in fishing nets and marine debris pollution, problems finding enough food due to overfishing by humans, and of course low genetic variation since there are so few individuals. Ciguatoxin poisoning is yet another problem heaped onto of already difficult odds for the species survival.

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