Federal officials in the U.S. have confirmed what biologists have long thought: The Caribbean monk seal has gone the way of the dodo.
Humans hunting the docile creatures for food, skins, and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists, who warn that Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals could be the next to go.
The last confirmed sighting of a wild Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 in the waters between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. (See map.)
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Service confirmed last Friday that the species is now extinct.
(Related: "China's Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce" [December 14, 2006].)
Kyle Baker, a biologist for the Fisheries Service southeast region, said the species is the only seal to be wiped out by human causes.
NOAA officials noted that there are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian and 500 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and their populations are declining.
"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives," Baker said.
The Caribbean monk seal was discovered during Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the New World in 1494.
The seals once had a population of more than 250,000, but they became easy game for hunters because they often rested, gave birth, or nursed their pups on beaches.
From the 1700s to 1900s the seals were killed mainly for their blubber, which was processed into oils, used for lubrication, and applied as a coating on the bottom of boats.
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