I have no words for this photo of a Hawaiian monk seal with an eel stuck up its nose—only questions.
The photo was shared to Facebook on Monday by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, a division of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based on Oahu.
It was taken over the summer on an islet in the French Frigate Shoals where another island disappeared in October after being hit by a powerful hurricane. Monk seals use these islands to rear their pups, and roughly 80 percent of the species’ population is found throughout French Frigate Shoals and other northernmost parts of the Hawaiian archipelago.
“This is the third or fourth case of an eel in the nose that we have observed,” Charles Littnan, lead scientist and supervisory research ecologist at the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, told me.
Nobody knows how the eel got there, but Littnan had a few theories.
“Monk seals forage by shoving their mouth and nose into crevasses in coral reefs, under rocks, or into the sand,” he said, and the eel may have latched on in self defense.
“Alternatively, it could be the seal had swallowed in eel and regurgitated it with the eel subsequently coming out the wrong way,” Littnan added. “We might not ever know.”
Field researchers removed the eel through “light restraint of the seal and a slow steady pull to get the eel out,” the program said on Facebook. The whole process took 30 seconds. Sadly, the eel did not survive.
But the story gets even stranger.
Over the four decades that NOAA scientists have been monitoring the seals, they’ve only witnessed this phenomenon in the last few years.
“We don't know if this is just some strange statistical anomaly or something we will see more of in the future,” Littnan said.
Previous instances occurred on Lisianski Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where NOAA also studies the animal.
Hawaiian monk seals are endangered and face a host of threats including disease, shark predation, shrinking habitat, marine debris, and deliberate killing by humans. The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program notes that food limitation is a central factor in the decline of some subpopulations.
The species is “highly sensitive” to the consequences of climate change, and NOAA estimates that 1,400 individuals remain in the wild. By studying the animals, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program hopes to assist in their recovery.
“All of the seals we have encountered in this situation have been quickly caught and the eel gently and successfully removed,” Littnan said.
None of them, he added, seemed too fussed by the incident.