Cartography has us near enough up-to-date on the lay of the land on Earth, but while we can view stretches of land from space, we can still miss out on nuggets of biological phenomena in the finer details. One such golden nugget was recently secured in Northern Cyprus, where researchers found a breeding ground for Mediterranean Monk seals (Hawaiian Monk seals are the eel snorters) that was previously unknown to science.
The discovery, published in the journal Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, is a rare bit of good news for the world’s most endangered species of seal. Conservationists can now work towards prioritizing caves that should be protected in the region to support the continuation of the population.
As an endangered species, the Mediterranean monk seal currently sits at a population estimate of just 700 animals in the wild. In a press release, the authors of the new study explain that in 2007, a survey of the coast in the region identified 39 caves that had potential as breeding grounds for Monk seals – but of those 39, there have already been several lost due to development in the area.
Pregnant females are smart parents and will choose remote and hard-to-access underground caves or, more rarely, remote beaches (some even set up camp on a Greek prison island). It’s a smart strategy for avoiding predators when the pups are at their most vulnerable, but poses a similar obstacle for conservation ecologists trying to establish where the grounds are and how to protect them.
Thankfully, the team on this latest research from the University of Exeter were able to team up with the Society for the Protection of Turtles (SPOT) and employ camera traps as a remote means of monitoring Monk seals. The subsequent imagery was able to confirm there were breeding caves in Northern Cyprus, with evidence of at least three pups being born from 2016 to 2019 in just one cave. Though the numbers are small, they are mighty for such an endangered animal, but the pressure is on to keep these areas secure.
"This area of coastline [is] being developed rapidly, especially for construction of hotels," said Dr Robin Snape, of the Exeter Centre for Ecology and Conservation in a statement. "The main breeding site we identify in this study currently has no protected status, and we are working with local authorities to try to change this."
The work doesn’t stop there, as another major threat for Monk seals is getting swept up as bycatch. Keeping breeding grounds secure is only so effective if the surviving pups don’t accidentally end up in fishery catch. The team is working with fisheries and governing bodies in the region to implement new measures and protect the caves’ graduating pups.