The Hawaiian monk seal is threatened by a range of threats, from fishing net to disease. Now the beleaguered species faces an unexpected new challenge – eels get their noses in the nose.
A picture of a monk seal with an eel in its nose was shared this week by a Hawaii-based department of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). The episode was just the latest eel-in-sneak incident of the last two years, confusing researchers.
"We have closely monitored monk seals for four decades, and nothing like this happened during that time. Said Charles Littnan, senior scientist of the Noaa Hawaiian monk seal research program. "Now it happened three or four times and we have no idea why."
In the summer of 201
"They're really close together, so you have to hold on to the seal and pull the eel tight to get it out," Littnan said. "One of them was really far away, so it was like a magician's handkerchief trick, we just had to move on and pull."
The phenomena could plague the seals regarding infections or even their ability to dive and feed on marine life. Seals typically close their nostrils when they submerge in the water, a process that is hindered by the presence of eel in the nose. "Having a putrid fish in your nose will certainly cause some problems," Littnan complained.
The researchers have managed to remove all protruding eels from juvenile seals, but are still trying to figure out why.
One theory is that seals, which often pile up their meals, throw eels through their nostrils. Another is that scared eels get stuck there as they try to escape the seals while the predators look for food under rocks. In both cases, the scientists do not know why this nasal congestion is only now being observed by humans.
"If I had to guess, I'd say it's one of those weird oddities," Littnan said. "If you observe nature long enough, you will see strange things."
Monk seals are endemic in Hawaii and listed as endangered species in the US, and there are still about 1,400 individuals left. Threats such as fisheries and epidemics are another challenge with climate change.