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Caribbean monk seal is declared extinct

June 9, 2008 |  5:03 pm

After decades without a single survivor having been sighted, authorities on Friday declared the Caribbean monk seal extinct. The Associated Press reports:

Humans hunting the docile creatures for research, food and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists who warn that Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals could be the next to go.

The last confirmed sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service confirmed Friday that the species is extinct.

Kyle Baker, a biologist for NOAA's Fisheries Service southeast region, said the species is the only seal to become extinct from human causes.

Deemed easy hunting targets as far back as Columbus' second voyage to the Americas in 1494, the Caribbean monk seals' numbers steadily declined from a peak of 250,000 and were declared endangered in 1967.

Hawaiian_monk_seal Biologists fear the Hawaiian monk seal, a close relative, pictured at right, could be the next to go. Facing its own pressures -- depleting beaches, coastal development, marine debris and global warming -- that seal's population is declining 4% annually, according to NOAA. If numbers fall below 1,000, it could become among the world's most endangered marine species.

So what now? Authorities are "working" to take Caribbean monk seals off the endangered species list, because as the AP points out, they're no longer endangered or even threatened. They're gone forever.

But as final as that sounds, there have been species that have unexpectedly reappeared years after they were thought to be extinct. The widely publicized post-extinction sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the painted frog come to mind. Scientists call such organisms Lazarus species, referring to the biblical story of Lazarus rising from the dead. So maybe there is hope for the Caribbean monk seal after all.

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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