© 2019 MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal

Background - ©Frédéric Larrey/Thomas Roger

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

Scientific research is one of the most important activities that MOm conducts to protect and conserve monk seals. In order to effectively protect a species as endangered as the Mediterranean monk seal, one has to have a detailed understanding of the species’ biology and behaviour, as well as the threats it faces. The scientific study of monk seals is extremely difficult since they are so rare, shy and tend to haul out in dark, inaccessible marine caves where they are difficult to observe.

MOm’s research activities are focused on obtaining a better understanding of the basic aspects of Mediterranean monk seal biology, behavior and ecology. Our research focus includes:

• Monitoring the distribution of Mediterranean monk seals in Greece
• Locating and mapping important pupping areas
• Monitoring annual pup production
• Studying the genetic status of the monk seal population in Greece
• Studying what the seals eat, how deep they dive, how long they live etc.
• Studying how human activities affect Mediterranean monk seals
• Studying the effects of environmental parameters

MOm’s fundamental research and conservation philosophy is to collect as much detailed information about monk seals as possible without interfering with the natural behaviour of the animals or disturbing them. Within the framework of their research activities, the scientists at MOm have used some of the most technologically advanced field research methods, such as infrared photo-cameras, remote-controlled video cameras, and satellite tags to successfully monitor and track monk seals.

The results of MOm’s scientific research are made available to national and international authorities and are used to design and implement effective conservation and management measures for Mediterranean monk seals. They are also presented to the international scientific community through scientific publications and presentations at international conferences.

Monitoring

In areas where important populations of Mediterranean monk seals have been identified, MOm promotes their protection through the designation of effective conservation measures. In order to achieve this, MOm needs accurate information on the demographic status of these populations. This information is collected during the systematic scientific monitoring of the Mediterranean monk seal populations in these areas. Throughout the years, MOm’s biologists have gained unique experience in the study of the Mediterranean monk seal and while doing so have managed also to develop and improve current research methodologies for the species. The researchers of MOm were among the first to use research methodologies such as automatic infrared cameras and genetic monitoring in the study of the species in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The research team of MOm possesses now long-term biological data on monk seal populations in the Northern Sporades Islands, the island of Gyaros and Kimolos in the Cyclades and Northern Karpathos in the Dodecanese Islands. The evaluation of these data provide valuable insights into the status and trends of the monk seal populations in these areas but also of the species overall in Greece.

 

Mapping of important areas

Greece is a unique country in regard to its geography. Although small in size, Greece has a coastline that exceeds 16,000 km in length, which is more than half the length of the entire African continent and almost as long as the coastline of the U.S.! At the same time, Greece has more than 4,000 islands, making the country the ideal refuge for the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal. The numerous marine caves found along the Greek coastline are used by monk seals for sheltering, resting and pupping, and are essential for the survival of the species.

Locating and mapping all these caves is an important research priority and a prerequisite for the successful conservation and management of this critically endangered species. However, this task is extremely difficult, both in respect to the logistics and the necessary time involved in completing it. To date, the research team at MOm has managed to survey one fourth of the entire Greek coastline, and the goal is to complete the task within the next decade! Information from the Rescue and Information Network of MOm make us believe that more important areas for the Mediterranean monk seal will be discovered in Greece and that hopefully soon a network of protected, important areas for the species will be established in the country.

 

Samples Bank

Due to their endangered status, Mediterranean monk seals are subject to the strictest of regulations regarding the export of biological samples. The possession and transport of any specimens from a Mediterranean monk seal requires a special permit from the national competent authorities and must be in accordance with the regulations of the CITES convention (Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species), which oversees such procedures. MOm is an accredited research institute with a permanent permit to legally possess and transport biological samples of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal.

Over the years ΜΟm has collected biological samples from live and dead Mediterranean monk seals, which have been stored in a unique Mediterranean Monk Seal Tissue Sample Bank.

 

These samples have been collected during the:

• Rehabilitation of sick, wounded and orphan seals
• Research activities of MOm, such as monitoring important Mediterranean monk seal populations
• Necropsies carried out at dead animals found opportunistically along the coastline of Greece

 

Some of the samples are analyzed promptly in order to determine the causes of death of each individual, while other samples are kept for future studies that will shed light on the still poorly-understood biology and behavior of the Mediterranean monk seal. So far, more than 2,100 samples and specimen materials from 160 different individuals have been collected. Many of these samples have been used in studies carried out in co-operation with several universities and research institutes in Greece and abroad; in order to inform the international research and conservation community these results are regularly published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Some examples:

• Teeth from dead seals have been used to estimate the age and development of Mediterranean monk seals. Read the results here.
• Stomach contents have been used to study the dietary habits of the Mediterranean monk seal. Read the results here.