Say Aloha to Hō‘ailona

blog_slugRare Hawaiian monk seal now calls Long Marine Lab home
Meet UC Santa Cruz’s newest student–a two-year-old Hawaiian monk seal named Hō‘ailona. Like any freshman, he’s adjusting to his new environment, making friends, and even has his own Facebook page. However, his curriculum is a little different than that of the average student–Hō‘ailona is learning to participate in scientific research that can provide critical data for the conservation of endangered monk seals.

National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) scientists rescued Hō‘ailona from a Kaua‘i beach in May 2008, after he’d been abandoned by his mother. They cared for him and then released him back to the wild on the island of Moloka‘i in December 2008. The transition back into the wild did not go smoothly; Hō‘ailona had become habituated to humans and preferred hanging out at the wharf and interacting with people to being with his fellow seals. As he grew bigger, his interactions with people became a threat to his own and the public’s safety.     In November 2009, NOAA officials had to remove Hō‘ailona from Moloka‘i, intending to relocate him to a remote Hawaiian location where he could interact with numerous seals and few people. But while prepping him for the move, veterinarians discovered that Hō‘ailona had a serious eye condition that could threaten his chances of survival in the wild. Instead of heading back into the wild, Hō‘ailona was transferred to UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory. Currently, a team of scientists and veterinarians are evaluating Hō‘ailona to assess his overall health and to determine the appropriate treatment plan for the cataracts in both of his eyes.

While in California, Hō‘ailona is also serving as a valuable source of information that can help with the conservation of monk seals. Monk seals are a critically endangered species, with only 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild. The Mediterranean monk seal, the only other existing monk seal species since the Caribbean monk seal went extinct, has only about 500 individuals remaining.

Researchers are taking advantage of this rare opportunity to learn more about monk seals’ physiology and health. Terrie Williams, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, is overseeing the research in coordination with NOAA, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, and other researchers. They’re conducting basic metabolic studies to better understand how much energy it takes for a monk seal to find food in different environments. This information, plus data from wild monk seals, will allow researchers to evaluate the suitability of different habitats for wild seals, knowledge that can help with conservation efforts. They’re also looking at Hō‘ailona’s responses to different water temperatures, which may show how sensitive monk seals are to changes in ocean temperature (and thus how much the species may be affected by climate change).

UCSC scientists have dedicated a website to the seal (monkseal.ucsc.edu), called “Hō‘ailona’s Journey”, and update it monthly with Hō‘ailona’s latest achievements and their observations. They will also hold a Mother’s Day walk and run to benefit monk seal research. Finish Line Productions and the Seymour Discovery Center are sponsoring the May 910K race. Williams encourages participation, and hopes for a large turnout. “We’re going to try to get 1,100 people, one for every monk seal left in Hawaii,” she says. See the above website for more details.

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