Nun seal: who she is and how she lives


The monk seal, splendid Phocidae of the Mediterranean is now a very rare species to see as unfortunately in danger of extinction.

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Monachus monachus

Common name

: monk seal or Mediterranean seal


  • Body length : about 2.5m (from tip of tail to tip of nose)
  • Weight: 300 - 315 kg
  • Lifespan: 20-30 years
  • Sexual maturity: 4 - 6 years


The monk seal (or of the Mediterranean) is an animal that was once widespread in the Mediterranean Sea and in all the adjacent seas while today its distribution is fragmented in numerous small populations and is considered one of the rarest animals in the world. Few specimens are found in the Mediterranean, in the Ionian and Aegean islands, along the coasts of Greece and western Turkey. There are still two colonies in the south-eastern part of the North Atlantic in Cabo Blanco on the border between Mauritania and Western Sahara and in the Desertas Islands (islands of the Madeira group of islands that are located halfway between the Azores and the Canaries).

There is no real ideal habitat but it is found along the warm or temperate coastal waters. They are considered shy animals and for this reason they do not come into contact with humans and live mostly in caves with entrances under the sea (to avoid access to terrestrial predators), especially the females when they have to give birth while males are also found on the beaches.


The two closest relatives of the Monachus monachus I'm there Monachus tropicalis (fCaribbean nun goose) now extinct and the Monachus schauinslandi (Hawaiian monk seal) she too in danger of extinction. All three species (now two) are the only pinnipeds to inhabit only the low latitude areas with temperate and tropical waters, so much so that scholars still do not agree in explaining why these species have gone so far south. However, one thing is certain and on which everyone agrees: these species are considered living fossils as it has been ascertained that, despite the adaptations they have had over time to different climatic and environmental situations, they have maintained their ancestral characteristics.


The monk seal is a mostly solitary animal but can also be found in more or less large groups.

She is an excellent swimmer so much so that in the water she manages to get the better of even a shark.

Her life takes place in the water, so much so that some scholars argue that she is socially much more active in the water than on land.

The monk seal has an elongated and robust body, provided with a coat of varying color from brown to more or less dark gray and with the sides and the ventral part lighter (males generally have a light spot on the belly and the mantle more dark). Often the body is stained and covered with numerous scars: dorsally they are more frequent in females, which suggests that they were inflicted by males during mating; while the ventral scars, especially in the neck area, are more frequent among the males and suggest that they are the result of fights, during the mating season. The coat is covered with hair which in adults is so short and bristly that the animal appears shaved.

It is a mammal that reaches a length of about 2.5 m with a weight of about 300-315 kg and the males are slightly larger than the females.

The head is rounded, with a round muzzle with two large eyes well spaced apart, two large nostrils on the sides of which there are five rows (rows) of long whiskers (or whiskers) of generally light color, smooth and particularly sensitive which help the animal to identify fish in the water through their movements.

Compared to the long and massive body, the fins are short. The front ones are equipped with 2.5 cm long claws while the rear ones have very little developed claws.

It is an animal subject to periodic moulting.

It is able to dive up to 70 m in search of food, holding its breath even for 10 minutes.


Monk seals communicate with each other mainly through vocalizations to warn of a danger or if something is not right they emit different types of sounds, especially in the water.

Some studies seem to show that hearing and sight are more developed in water than on land and that moving objects are better perceived than stationary ones.

It has been observed that when they sleep, they are not sensitive to noises, which caused them numerous problems in antiquity (see paragraph "curiosity).


It is a seal that hunts during the day along the coast, feeding on a great variety of fish such as eels, rays, sardines, tuna, lobsters, sole and mullet as well as cephalopods such as octopus and squid.

To search for its prey, it dives to a depth of 70 m.


Sexual maturity is reached by both the female and the male around 4-6 years.

The period in which it mates is mainly between September and November (although it can happen throughout the year) and generally takes place inside the water. After mating, the male does not stay with the female and the raising of the children is entrusted only to the latter.

The gestation lasts about 11 months at the end of which usually only 1 puppy is born that weighs about 15-20 kg and is 80-100 cm long. The baby has a black fluffy coat flecked with white or yellow on the belly which after four to six weeks becomes silvery gray and gradually darker with age.

To give birth, the females isolate themselves and take refuge in caves that actively defend against other seals.

The baby is suckled by the mother who has four retractable nipples and thanks to the particularly nutritious milk, growth until weaning is rapid, with a significant increase in size in the first two weeks of the puppy's life.

The young of this seal begins to enter the water already during the first week of life and remains there for most of the time followed by the mother who for about 6 weeks never leaves it alone, not even to eat, living at the expense of the fat accumulated during the year.

The puppy is weaned around 4-5 months of age but stays with the mother until about 3-4 years of age.

The death rate in puppies is very high and has been estimated at around 50% within the first two months of life.


Monk seals generally do not have predators (apart from man) although some scholars attribute them to killer whales and sharks.


The monk seal is classified in the IUNC Red list (2009.2) as critically endangered animals in the wild, CRITICALLY ENDANGERED (CR): the world population has been estimated at 350-450 individuals among which those living in the eastern Mediterranean, with an estimated population of about 250-300 individuals, are the most threatened and of these about 150-200 live along the Greek coasts and about 100 in Turkey. About 130 individuals are then found in the area of ​​Cabo Blanco (Western Sahara, Mauritania) and about 20 in the Desertas island (island of the group of islands of Madeira, halfway between the Azores and the Canaries) as well as some individuals sighted here and there along the coasts of Algeria. The population of Cabo Blanco is considered very important as it is the only one that still retains the structure of a colony while all the other populations are small groups usually formed by less than 5 individuals.

Of all the mammals in the Mediterranean, it is the species most threatened with extinction. According to what history reports, the decline of this species began many years ago, already in Roman times. It was hunted for its meat; to obtain medicines (the fat was also used to treat wounds and bruises while the fins to fight insomnia); for grease (for oil lamps and tallow candles); for fur (to make curtains, shoes, clothes). Following the fall of the Roman Empire and therefore a decrease in demand, the population began a slight recovery (although not at previous levels). With the Middle Ages the exploitation has resumed massively so that the populations of monk seals have started to move from the beaches, to the caves or at least to the cliffs inaccessible to man. Subsequently, wars, the industrial revolution, tourism, industrial fishing led to the current situation.

Today the greatest dangers are in fact represented by the destruction of its natural habitats and by the concomitant human pressure along the coasts; from pollution; from the fact of getting entangled in fishing nets but above all from hunting by nefarious fishermen who see it as a competitor for the fish it eats (especially in the eastern Mediterranean) so much so that the latter is considered the main cause of death of this animal . Besides all this it must be said that they have a neonatal mortality rate equal to 50% within the first two months of life of the puppies, this is due both to the sudden high tides but above all to the congenital weakness due to the low genetic variability.

Today it is a protected species and several protected areas have been established specifically for this species: one in the Desertas Islands and one in the Northern Sporades Islands in Greece, in the National Marine Park.

However, these are only small drops that certainly are not stopping the rapid decline of this population especially because the negative interaction with the fishing population and the impoverishment of genetic variability are the main threats to the species.

Monachus monachus is listed in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, known simply as the "Washington Convention") which includes endangered species whose trade is permitted only in exceptional cases; in Appendix II of the Berne Convention (Convention for the Conservation of Wild Life and its Biotopes in Europe); in the Bonn Convention or CMS (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals); in the EU Habitat Directive for nature conservation.


The common name of this species monk seal it derives from the fact that the color of the adult's coat recalls the sais of the friars hence the name.

In ancient Greece it was an animal under the protection of Poseidon and Apollo because it was considered a creature who loved the sea and the sun.

The image on the side is a detail of a Ceretano hydria (a type of Greek amphora used to transport water) from 520-510 BC. representing a monk seal.

Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle talks about it and was considered by fishermen and sailors, a symbol of good wishes and good luck.

In ancient times, moreover, due to the fact that it was observed that it had a very deep sleep, it was hunted for its fins, used as a cure for insomnia.


(1) Photo taken from Chios Echo

Online bibliographic sources

(en) Monachus Guardian

Video: Seal - Kiss From A Rose Live @ SiriusXM

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