Endangered Hawaiian monk seals are facing a strange new threat, on top of the usual challenges from disease and becoming caught in fishing nets.
Researchers don’t know exactly what is causing the eels to lodge themselves up monk seals’ noses, but they are clearly problematic for a mammal that seals its nostrils to dive underwater.
“We’ve been intensively monitoring monk seals for four decades and in all of that time nothing like this has happened,” Charles Littnan, lead scientist at Noaa’s Hawaiian monk seal research program, told the Guardian. “Now it’s happened three or four times and we have no idea why.”
Noaa has seen it happening enough times for them to release guidelines on how to remove the eels.
“They get stuck in there really snug, so you have to restrain the seal and give the eel a firm tug to get it out,” said Littnan. “One of them was really far in so it was like a magician’s handkerchief trick, we just had to keep pulling and pulling.”
Other problems the eels could cause the seals are infectious diseases or hampering their ability to feed on fish and other sea creatures.
“Having a rotten fish inside your nose is bound to cause some problems,” Littnan said.
Thankfully, the researchers have been able to extract all of the eels they have spotted, but they are still baffled as to why it is happening.
One theory is that, because seals forage for food by shoving their noses into rock pools and coral reefs, eels they encounter could try and defend themselves by plunging into the seals’ noses.
Or seals could be swallowing the eels and then regurgitating them.
“If I had to guess, I would say that it’s one of those strange oddities,” Littnan said. “If you observe nature long enough, you’ll see strange things.”
The team has so far successfully extracted the eels from all the seals found in this predicament, with the seals being released back into the wild.
The eels are just the latest threat faced by the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, which is regarded as highly at risk by Noaa.
There are around 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, and they are all found in the Hawaiian islands. It is the only seal native to Hawaii and one of only two mammals endemic to the islands.
They can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes and dive more than 1,800 feet to forage for food on the sea bed.
The main threat the species faces is access to food, especially for young seals, Noaa says.
However, the agency says it has managed to save up to 30 percent of the monk seals in the current population, cutting the rate of population decline by half.
The agency works with individual seals in order to save them, focusing on young and reproductive females.