Recent Monk Seal Research Focused on Health and Disease Issues

In recent months, the PIFSC Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) has focused on monk seal health and disease issues. In September 2010, the HMSRP hosted a workshop with a panel of external experts to clarify the scope, direction, and focus of its health and disease research, and devise a strategy for moving forward. Five external epidemiologists and marine mammal veterinarians were invited to provide independent feedback on the program. The workshop produced recommendations for prioritizing needed activities and improvements and a discussion of the resources potentially required to achieve program goals.

The HMSRP also continued research on contaminant loads in monk seals of the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and the potential impacts on seal health and welfare. The work is being undertaken by HMSRP scientist Jessica Lopez in collaboration with Hawaii Pacific University. Researchers will quantify persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the blubber and serum of monk seals. Samples have been screened for 79 different POP compounds in order to develop a baseline of contaminant levels for MHI seals. Data on seal location, derived from satellite tags attached to the seals, will be integrated with contaminant level data to identify geographic locations where seals are most at risk for contaminant exposure. This is the first study of contaminant levels in monk seals from the MHI and will provide an important baseline for future studies and comparison. Because contaminants may disrupt immune function, knowledge of contaminant levels can be useful in studies of disease risks to the MHI seal population. Likewise, because contaminants may affect seal reproduction, contaminant levels can inform studies of demographic and population-level trends. The current investigation is laying the groundwork for much-needed future studies of the effects of contaminants on this critically endangered species.