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Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  Mediterranean Monk Seal underwater photo. © IFAW
Mediterranean Monk Seal
(Monachus monachus)
Photo: © IFAW International Fund for Animal Welfare/Da Costa This link is an external site.


ESA Endangered - throughout its range
MMPA Depleted - throughout its range

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Monachus
Species: monachus

Species Description

The Mediterranean monk seal is a phocid or "true" seal, and is the rarest and most endangered of all pinnipeds. These seals belong to the same genus (Monachus) as the Hawaiian monk seals and Caribbean monk seals. All three of these monk seal species are considered to be either critically endangered (Hawaiian and Mediterranean) or extinct (Caribbean).1, 2, 3

Mediterranean monk seals have a fairly large, long, robust body, and can grow up to about 7-9 ft (2.2-2.8 m) in length and weigh 530-880 lbs (240-400 kg). Males can be slightly larger than females.1, 4 Like other monk seals, this species has a distinctive head and face. The head is rounded with an extended broad "muzzle" and an almost-even "crown". The face has relatively large wide-spaced eyes, upward opening nostrils, and fairly big whisker pads with long, light-colored, smooth whiskers. When compared to the body, the animal's "fore-flippers" are relatively short with little claws and the "hind-flippers" are slender. Their coloration is variable, ranging from brownish to grayish, with the underside lighter than the dorsal-side giving the animal a counter-shaded appearance. There is also a pale patch located on the belly. Males are generally darker than females. Individuals have a pale mask on their face and a dark hood on their rounded head.1, 4, 5 Scratches, speckles, and scars may cover the body as well.

Mediterranean monk seals are a reclusive species that are generally found singly or in small groups of 2-3 individuals, but may aggregate at "haul-out" at sites in large loose social groups to "molt". Haul-out sites may be along rocky shorelines, sea caves and open sandy beaches.6 Researchers suggest that these pinnipeds are more socially active in the water than on land.7

Mediterranean monk seals are capable of diving to at least 165-230 ft (50-70 m) to forage, and are able to hold their breath for 5-10 minutes. Their diet mainly consists of feeding on fish, rays, and cephalopods (e.g., octopus and squid).1, 7, 8

Mediterranean monk seals become sexually mature at 2-6 years of age. In order to mate with females, males may defend aquatic territories.9 After successfully breeding, gestation for this species lasts about one year. Females give birth to pups year-round, but pupping generally peaks September-November.1, 6 Like other monk seals, this species has four retractable nipples for suckling their young. Newborn pups are about 2.5-4 ft (0.8-1.2 m) in length and weigh 35-45 lbs (15-20 kg) and have a sleek black "lanugo" coat with spots at birth.1 At 4-7 weeks, the black lanugo coat is replaced by a silver or gray coat. Mothers and pups develop a strong, important bond. Pups are generally weaned after 4 months, but sometimes stay with their mothers for up to 4 years.7 The estimated lifespan of this species in the wild is 20-30 years or more.1, 8

Mediterranean monk seals can be found in warm temperate, subtropical and tropical waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the east Atlantic Ocean. They are considered shy of people and prefer isolated haul-out sites and sea caves or grottos where females give birth and nurse their young.6, 10, 11, 12

Mediterranean monk seal range map
Mediterranean Monk Seal Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

Mediterranean monk seals have an endemic widespread range throughout the Mediterranean Sea (Aegean, Black and Ionian Seas, as well as the Sea of Marmara), and the east Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Northwest Africa.7 Their historical distribution included the Azores, Morocco, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, Madeira, Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. They are not considered to have migration patterns, but may have home ranges.

Population Trends
There are approximately 600 Mediterranean monk seals currently remaining and the species is considered to be at great risk of extinction.1, 2 There are two separate and distinct populations:

  1. a northeastern Mediterranean group that inhabits the Aegean and Ionian Seas around Greece and Turkey, and
  2. a northeastern Atlantic group that inhabits the island of Madeira and the coast of Mauritania/Western Sahara in North Africa.1, 13, 14, 15

The largest concentration of Mediterranean monk seals is currently in and around Greece in both the Aegean and Ionian Seas.12 Vagrant individuals still occur in Italy. The conservation of these populations has become more complex due to reproductive isolation and political jurisdictions.9 Mediterranean monk seals used to be found but are now considered locally extinct in the Azores and the Black Sea.

Mediterranean monk seals have been targeted and killed by fisherman for their oil, meat, hides, and in order to reduce competition for fish and cephalopods. This species is also at risk of entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris.16, 17, 18, 19 Colonies throughout the species' range have been displaced due to coastal development (Reeves et al., 2002). Humans, through their direct and indirect interactions, have also negatively impacted these sensitive seals and their natural habitat. Fishing, coastal development and other exploitation activities have infringed on these animals, and may cause them to abandon their critical and vital habitat, or have depleted their prey resources.20, 21 Storms and heavy surf have had significant effects on the mortality of newborn and young pups that are nursed in caves.12, 15 Other significant threats include mass mortalities caused by viral epidemics (e.g. morbillivirus) or naturally occurring phytoplankton-based paralytic toxins,22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 contaminants from industrial pollution,29, 30 and inbreeding among sub-populations.7, 9

Conservation Efforts
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species This link is an external site. considers Mediterranean monk seals to be "Critically Endangered."

The National Marine Park of Alonnisos in the Northern Sporades islands of Greece was established in 1992 as a protected area for monk seals.

Regulatory Overview
This species is protected in its range by various laws administered by the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean. The important/export of samples, parts, or live animals into/out of the United States is regulated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
ESA Listing Rule 35 FR 8491 06/02/1970

More Information


  1. Johnson et al., 2006
  2. IUCN, 2007
  3. NOAA/NMFS, 2008
  4. Samaranch and Gonzalez, 2000
  5. Jefferson et al., 2002
  6. Shirihai and Jarrett, 2006
  7. Jefferson et al., 2008
  8. Sergeant et al., 1978
  9. Reeves et al., 2002
  10. Forcada, 2000
  11. Forcada and Aguilar, 2000
  12. Dendrinos et al., 2007a and 2007b
  13. Güçlüsoy et al., 2004
  14. CMS/UNEP, 2005
  15. Pires et al., 2008
  16. Panou et al., 1993
  17. Androukaki et al.,1999
  18. Güçlüsoy and Savas, 2003
  19. Güçlüsoy, 2007
  20. Johnson and Lavigne, 1998
  21. Johnson and Lavigne, 1999
  22. Osterhaus et al., 1997
  23. Harwood, 1998
  24. Hernandez et al., 1998
  25. Osterhaus et al., 1998
  26. Forcada et al., 1999
  27. van der Bildt et al., 1999
  28. Toplu et al., 2007
  29. Borrel et al., 1997
  30. Borrell et al., 2007

Further Reading:

  • Androukaki, E., S. Adamantopoulou, P. Dendrinos, E. Tounta and S. Kotomatas. 1999. Causes of mortality in the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in Greece. Contributions to the Zoology & Ecology of the Eastern Mediterranean Region I (1999): 405-411.
  • Berta, A., J.L. Sumich and K.M. Kovacs. 2006. Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology (2nd Edition). Academic Press, San Diego, CA. 547 pp.
  • Borell, A., A. Aguilar and T. Pastor. 1997. Organochlorine pollutant levels in Mediterranean monk seals from the Western Mediterranean and the Sahara Coast. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 34(7): 505-510.
  • Borell, A., G. Cantos, A. Aguilar, E. Androukaki and P. Dendrinos. 2007. Concentrations and patterns of organochlorine pesticides and PCBs in Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) from Western Sahara and Greece. Science of the Total Environment, 381:316-325.
  • CMS/UNEP. 2005. Action Plan for the Recovery of the Mediterranean Monk Seal in the Eastern Atlantic. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, United Nations Environmental Programme. 13th Meeting of the CMS Scientific Council, Nairobi, Kenya, 16-18 November 2005. CMS/ScC.13/Inf.3. 104 pp.
  • Dendrinos, P., A.A. Karamanlidis, S. Kotomatas, A, Legakis, E. Tounta and J. Matthiopoulos. 2007a. Pupping habitat use in the Mediterranean monk seal: A long term study. Marine Mammal Science, 23(3): 615-628.
  • Dendrinos, P., E. Tounta, A.A. Karamanlidis, A. Legakis and S. Kotomatas. 2007b. A video surveillance system for monitoring the endangered Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), Aquatic Mammals, 33(2): 179-184.
  • Forcada, J. 2000. Can population surveys show if the Mediterranean monk seal colony at Cap Blanc is declining in abundance? The Journal of Applied Ecology, 37(1): 171-181.
  • Forcada, J. and A. Aguilar. 2000. Use of photographic identification in capturerecapture studies of Mediterranean monk seals. Marine Mammal Science, 16(4): 767-793.
  • Forcada, J., P.S. Hammond and A. Aguilar. 1999. Status of the Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachusin the Western Sahara and implications of a mass mortality event. Marine Ecology Press Series, 188: 249-261.
  • Fyler, C.A., T.W. Reeder, A. Berta, G. Antonelis, A. Aguilar and E. Androukaki. 2005. Historical biogeography and phylogeny of monachine seals (Pinnipedia: Phocidae) based on mitochrondrial and nuclear DNA data. Journal of Biogeography, 32: 1267-1279.
  • Güçlüsoy,H. 2008. Damage by monk seals to gear of the artisanal fishery in the Foça Monk Seal Pilot Conservation Area, Turkey. Fisheries Research, 90: 70-77.
  • Güçlüsoy, H. and Y. Savas. 2003. Interaction between monk seals Monachus monachus (Hermann, 1779) and marine fish farms in the Turkish Aegean and management of the problem. Aquaculture Research, 34(9): 777-783.
  • Güçlüsoy, H., C.O. Kiraç, N.O. Veryeri and Y. Savas. 2004. Status of the Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus (Hermann, 1779) in the coastal waters of Turkey. E.U. J. Fish Aquat. Sci., 21(3/4): 201-210.
  • Harwood, J. 1998. What killed the monk seals? Nature, 393: 17-18.
  • Hernández, M., I. Robinson, A. Aguilar, L.M. González, L.F. López-Jurado, M.I. Reyero, E. Cacho, J. Franco, V. López-Rodas and E. Costas. 1998. Did algal toxins cause monk seal mortality? Nature, 393: 28-29.
  • IUCN. 2007. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for the Conservation of Nature
  • Jefferson, T. A, M. A. Webber, and R. L. Pitman. (2008). Marine Mammals of the World, A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Amsterdam, Elsevier. p. 415-418.
  • Johnson, W.M. and D.M. Lavigne. 1998. The Mediterranean Monk Seal: Conservation Guidelines. International Marine Mammal Association, Inc., Guelph, Ontario. 152 pp.
  • Johnson, W.M. and D.M. Lavigne. 1999a. Monk Seals in Antiquity: The Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) in Ancient History and Literature. Mededelingen No. 35. The Netherlands Commission for International Nature Protection. 101 pp.
  • Johnson, W.M. and D.M. Lavigne. 1999b. Mass tourism and the Mediterranean monk seal. The Monachus Guardian, 2(2): 1-30.
  • Johnson, W.M., A.A. Karamanlidis, P. Dendrinos, P. Fernandez, M. Gazo, L.M. Gonzalez, H. Güçlüsoy, R. Pires, and M. Schnellmann. 2006. Monk seal fact files. Biology, behaviour, status and conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus. The Monachus Guardian,
  • NOAA/NMFS. 2008. Proposed Rule to remove the Caribbean monk seal from the Federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Federal Register, 73(111): 32521-32526.
  • Osterhaus, A., J. Groen, H. Niesters, M. van der Bildt, B. Martina, L. Vedder, J. Vos, H. van Egmond, B.A. Sidi, M.E.O. Barham. 1997. Morbillivirus in monk seal mass mortality. Nature, 388: 838-839.
  • Osterhaus, A., M. van der Bildt, L. Vedder, B. Martina, H. Niesters, J. Vos, H. van Egmond, D. Liem, R. Baumann, E. Androukaki, S. Kotomatas, A. Komnenou, B.A. Sidi, A.B. Jiddou and M.E.O. Barham. 1998. Monk seal mortality: Virus or toxin? Vaccine, 16(9): 979-981.
  • Panou, A., J. Jacobs and D. Panos. 1993. The endangered Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus in the Ionian Sea, Greece. Biological Conservation, 64(2): 129-140.
  • Pires, R., H.C. Neves and A.A. Karamanlidis. 2008. The critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus in the archipelago of Madeira: priorities for conservation. Oryx, 42(2): 278-285.
  • Reeves, R. R., P. A. Folkens, et al. (2002). Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. p. 150-153.
  • Samaranch, R. and L.M. González. 2000. Changes in morphology with age in Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus). Marine Mammal Science, 16(1):141-157.
  • Sergeant, D., K. Ronald, J. Boulva and F. Berkes. 1978. The recent status of Monachus monachus, the Mediterranean monk seal. Biological Conservation, 14(4): 259-287.
  • Shirihai, H. and B. Jarrett (2006). Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals of the World. Princeton, Princeton University Press. p. 332-333.
  • Toplu, N., A. Aydogan and T.C. Oguzoglu. 2007. Visceral Leishmaniosis and Parapoxvirus infection in a Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Journal of Comparative Pathology, 136: 283-287.
  • van der Bildt, M.W.G., E.J. Vedder, B.E.E. Martina, B.A. Sidi, A.B. Jiddou, M.E.O. Barham, E. Androukaki, A. Komnenou, H.G.M. Niesters and A.D.M.E. Osterhaus. 1999. Morbilliviruses in Mediterranean monk seals. Veterinary Microbiology, 69: 19-21.
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