Scientists Not Amused by Endangered Monk Seal with Eel in Its Nose

Could it be the seal equivalent of human teens eating Tide pods?

Maybe you’ve seen the photo of a juvenile Hawaiian monk seal with an eel stuck up its nose. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the only seal who’s gotten itself into this predicament. Scientists who’ve observed Hawaiian monk seals—one of the most endangered marine animals in the world—for almost 40 years don’t find this fairly recent trend particularly amusing.

“We have only started seeing ‘eels in noses’ in the last few years,” notes an update on the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries website. “Yet, our researchers have observed this phenomenon three or four times now. We don’t know if this is just some strange statistical anomaly or if we will see more eels in seals in the future.”

The phenomenon is “just so shocking,” Claire Simeone, director of the Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola, a monk seal hospital on Hawaii Island, told the Washington Post. “It’s an animal that has another animal stuck up its nose.”

It’s important to note that it cruel humans doing this. The viral photo above was snapped last summer in remote French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by someone with the Oahu-based Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP), a division of NOAA Fisheries.

So, how in the world does an eel end up in a monk seal’s nostril?

One possibility is that it happens when the seal is foraging for prey, including eels, octopuses and fish. The seal does this by shoving its mouth and nose in coral reef holes, underneath rocks or into sand. A cornered eel could try to escape by swimming up the seal’s nostril.

Another possibility is that the seal swallowed the eel and then regurgitated it, so the eel came out through the seal’s nose.

But because a Hawaiian monk seal’s muscular nostrils reflexively close when it’s foraging for food, it would be extremely difficult for an eel to squirm its way up there, Charles Littnan, lead scientist of the HMSRP, told the Washington Post. He said it’s also unlikely that a long, fat eel could be regurgitated through a seal’s nose.

Littnan has another interesting theory. Like human teenagers munching laundry detergent pods, juvenile monk seals are getting eels stuck up their noses because “they seem naturally attracted to getting into troublesome situations,” he said. “One juvenile seal did this very stupid thing and now the others are trying to mimic it.”

So far, scientists have been able to gently restrain the seals and slowly pull the eels from their nostrils.

“There was only maybe two inches of the eel actually still sticking out of the nose, so it was very much akin to the magician’s trick when they’re pulling out the handkerchiefs and they keep coming and coming and coming,” Littnan told the Washington Post.

All of the seals have survived and are doing great, Littnan said. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the eels – they all died.

But having an eel stuck in a nostril can be life-threatening for the endangered seals, Simeone told the Washington Post. One danger is the possibility of pneumonia. While diving, the monk seal wouldn’t be able to close the blocked nostril, so water could get into its lungs. Another problem could be infections from a decomposing eel.

In addition to the possibility of being getting sick from inhaling eels, Hawaiian monk seals are facing challenges like sharks, disease (including toxoplasmosis from feral cat poop), ocean garbage, limited prey availability and rising sea levels due to climate change.

These seals, which are about seven feet long and can weigh as much as 600 pounds, were called ilioholoikauaua (“dog running in the rough sea”) hundreds of years ago, perhaps because of their huge, puppy-like eyes. The monk seal, along with the hoary bat, are the only two animals native to Hawaii.

Today, there are only an estimated 1,400 monk seals in existence in the main Hawaiian Islands and the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In very good news for this endangered species, 2018 has been a record year for monk seal births in the main Hawaiian Islands. NOAA reports that 30 pups were born this year, beating the previous record of 21 in 2013.

As for the monk seals observed with eels in their noses, Littnan told the Washington Post he has this advice for them: “Make better choices.”

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Brittany Dolan

111 comments

Jack Y
Jack Y10 days ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y10 days ago

thanks

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John J
John J10 days ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J10 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Ingrid A
Ingrid A24 days ago

thanks

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Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyer27 days ago

How strange.

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Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyer27 days ago

My goodness!

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Teresa W
Teresa W27 days ago

thank you

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Leo C
Leo C27 days ago

Thank you for posting!

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Leo C
Leo C28 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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