Monk seal goes rogue, attacks endangered own

  • Updated: February 15, 2012 - 6:49 PM
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The Hawaiian monk seal known as KE18 attacks a pup at Kure Atoll, Hawaii in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

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The Hawaiian monk seal, the most endangered marine mammal in the United States, has a long list of threats -- fishing nets, sharks and, particularly, humans. But for one group of seals, the biggest threat came from one of its own: a 400-pound brute named KE18 who killed two other seals and wounded at least 11, most of them helpless pups.

The Hawaiian monk seal is on course to disappear in 50 to 100 years, scientists say. But KE18 was en route to having his ticket punched sooner because of his propensity for nudging his own species toward extinction. Authorities had planned to euthanize KE18. But when a NOAA team that planned to put him down traveled to Kure Atoll, it wasn't able to find him. He turned up at Midway Atoll, 55 miles away. There, NOAA officials decided to save him, sending the 9-year-old seal to a temporary home 1,400 miles away at Honolulu's Waikiki Aquarium. Jeff Walters, NOAA's monk seal recovery coordinator, said KE18 will be used in research on monk seal eating habits and calorie consumption at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he'll go later this month.

KE18 became a concern in 2010, when researchers saw him bully other seals. Last year he escalated his attacks, scratching, biting and holding other seals under water. NOAA staff would scare KE18 away from one victim only to see him move down the beach and begin bullying another. Ten of the 13 pups born at Kure last year had wounds from KE18. Scientists suspect him in two pup deaths. He also injured three juvenile seals.

NOAA officials aren't sure why KE18 did this. Because the attacks happened during the breeding season, and KE18 didn't have mates, there's a possibility he was acting out of misplaced breeding aggression. Miyoko Sakashita, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, said these types of actions may be necessary when one seal poses a risk to a population that can't afford to lose any individuals. Said Sakashita: "I think this is really just a symptom of the overall problem with the monk seals edging their way toward extinction."

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