Rare Hawaiian monk seals continue to feed eels to their noses - ScienceAlert

A relaxed Hawaiian nun seal with a relaxed appearance overlooks a white sandy beach on a green foliage. He has half-closed eyes and a serene expression on his face. But the calm behavior of the seal is surprising.

Why? Well, there's a long white and black eel dangling from its right nostril.

"It's really so shocking," Claire Simeone, a veteran and expert in Hawaii-based nuns, told The Washington Post. "It's an animal that has another animal attached to the nose".

Simeone was not the only person stunned by the photo of the seal and his unusual facial ornament that was shared at the start of this week on Facebook from the Hawaiian National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monk seal research program.

The photo – taken this year in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian islands – has become viral, attracting attention to a rare phenomenon that continues to confuse scientists like Charles Littnan, who is now pleading with the endangered seals to "make better choices".

It all started about two years ago, when Littnan, the main scientist of the monk seal program, woke up with a strange email from the field researchers. The subject line was short: "Eel in the nose".

"It was just like," We found a seal with an "eel stuck in the nose." Do we have a protocol? "" Littnan told the post in a telephone interview.

There was no way, Littnan said, and it took several emails and phone calls before the decision was made to take the eel and try to get it out.

"There were only two inches of eel still out of the nose, so it was very similar to the magician's make-up when they took out their handkerchiefs and kept coming, coming and going," he said.

After less than a minute of pulling, a half-and-a-half-and-a-half-eel eel emerged from the nostril of the seal.

Since then, Littnan has said there have been at least three or four reported cases, and the most recent occurred this fall. In all cases, the eels have been successfully removed and the seals are "making great progress," he said. None of the eels, however, survived.

"We have no idea why it's happening all of a sudden," Littnan said.

"You see very strange things if you look at nature long enough, and this could end up being one of these little quirks and mysteries of our career that we'll retire in 40 years and we'll continue to question what happened."

The researchers have already established that this is not the result of a man with a personal vendetta against seals and eels, because all cases have been reported by remote islands that are frequented only by scientists. Littnan said he had some theories about how an eel could naturally end up stuck in the nostril of a seal.

The preferred prey of a seal – usually fish, octopus and, of course, eels – likes to hide inside the coral reefs to avoid being eaten, and since marine mammals have no hands, they must hunt with their faces .

"They like to put their faces in the holes in the reef, and spit water out of their mouths to flush things out, and they'll do all sorts of tricks, but they're pushing their faces into holes," Littnan said. .

Perhaps, he said, an eel with his back to the wall decided that the only way to escape or defend himself was to swim against the nostril of his assailant, and the young seals that "were not very good at taking their food" they were forced to learn a hard lesson.

But Littnan said that theory does not make much sense.

"They are really rather long eels, and their diameter is probably close to what it would be for a nasal passage," he said.

He added that the nostrils of a monk seal, which are closed in reflex when they dive to feed, are very muscular and it would be difficult for any animal to cross them.

"I have trouble thinking about an eel that really wants to make its way into the nose," he said.

The other way in which eels could end up in the nostrils is through vomiting. Similar to how people sometimes end up accidentally throwing food or drinks out of their noses, which could also happen to seals, which often regurgitate their meals.

However, Littnan said it did not seem possible that a "fat eel" would end up crossing a seal's nose rather than coming out of his mouth. The "most plausible" theory, he said, is that adolescents of monk seals are not so different from their human counterparts. The seals of the monks "seem naturally attracted to entering problematic situations," said Littnan.

"It seems almost one of those teenage trends that happen," he said. "A youthful seal did this very stupid thing and now others are trying to imitate it."

Although no seal died or was seriously affected by eels, having a dead animal on the nose for a prolonged period of time can have potentially negative repercussions on health, said Simeone, director of Ke Kai Ola, a hospital of the monk seal seals. Hawaii operated by the Marine Mammal Center.

With an eel to his nose, a monk seal would not be able to close the blocked nostril during dives, which means that water could enter their lungs and cause problems, such as pneumonia, he said Simeon. A carcass of decomposing eels could also lead to infections, he said.

On Facebook, the photo of the seal had more than 1,600 reactions starting from the morning of Friday morning. The caption read: "On Monday … it may not have been nice for you, but it must have been better than an" eel in the nose ". It also became a moment of trend on Twitter.

Many have expressed their understanding that the seal has to experience what a Twitter user is described as "the most uncomfortable thing ever".

"RIP eel, but how good would it have been for the seal when it was mined?" another person wondered.

Littnan, however, told The Post that the young seal "apparently seemed quite oblivious to the fact that there were two feet of eel protruding from his face".

In general, Simeone said, marine animals are "very stoic". He added: "It's incredible the kind of things they can tolerate".

While "the eel snorts" has yet to take hold in the seal community, Littnan said he hopes it never happens.

"We hope it's just one of these evils that will disappear and will never be seen again," he said.

If the monk seals could understand humans, Littnan said he had a message for them: "I would kindly ask them to stop."

2018 © The Washington Post

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

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