DNA analysis of almost every Hawaiian monk seal that lived during the past 25 years reveals that the animal has the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal ever studied - less even than the cheetah, the northern elephant seal and the northern hairy-nosed wombat.
Jennifer Schultz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii, did most of the DNA work, using tissue collected by field researchers from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Program of the National Marine Fisheries Service Protected Species Division. The endangered seals are tagged by punching a hole in a flipper, and the plugs of flesh are saved.
The finding that the seals went through a genetic "bottleneck" probably means they have reduced ability to cope with changes in their environment, and it has implications for wildlife biologists who are trying to reverse the catastrophic decline in the species, which has been about 4 percent per year.
The Maui News file photo
Hawaiian monk seals, like this female are increasingly seen around the main islands. The main population, however, is in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, although the seals travel throughout the islands. This seal is wearing a tracking device.
Being hunted to near extinction does not mean a species cannot bounce back. In the famous case of the northern elephant seal on the West Coast, hunters killed all but 10 to 20 animals around the time of World War I, but the population is now over 175,000.
Historical data and statistical analysis of the Hawaiian monk seal suggest that its total population also got down to about two dozen early in the century. That did not preclude a rapid regrowth of its population - at 7 percent a year, about the same as recently exhibited by the Northern Pacific population of humpback whales that winter in Hawaii.
But evolution is a hard taskmaster, and despite legal protection and attention from biologists, the seal has been in steady decline for a least a quarter of a century. The population peaked around 1958, the time of the first comprehensive census. Annual censuses since the early 1980s have charted a steady drop in population, from more than 1,500 to about 1,200.
The reasons are uncertain and could include predation by sharks, competition with sharks and ulua for prey, pollution or a scarcity of food.
However, there is no evidence that reproductive problems associated with the reduction in genetic diversity are contributing, which has been a problem with the cheetah.
In a paper published in the Journal of Heredity, Schultz, Robert Toonen and Brian Bowen of the UH Department of Zoology and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and Jason Baker of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that comparison at 154 locations on the DNA "revealed unprecedentedly low levels of allelic diversity and heterozygosity."
No study before has achieved the almost compete survey of a mammalian species' members over so many generations, even for animals much rarer than the Hawaiian monk seal, like the northern hairy-nosed wombat. The lack of genetic variability is even more striking than for some other famous and rare Hawaiian animals that also went through tiny population bottlenecks, like the nene or the Laysan duck.
Statistical analysis suggests that the Hawaiian monk seal did not have a high level of genetic diversity even before humans began interfering. Today it has less genetic diversity than its cousin the Mediterranean monk seal, which, however, has an even lower 21st century population of about 300. (The Caribbean monk seal was driven to extinction before genetic sampling techniques were invented.)
Hawaiians before Western contact possibly hunted the seal, but the real slaughter came in the 19th century.
On a single voyage in 1859, 1,500 seals were killed. By the 1890s, there may have been as few as 23 seals left. There was no nose count; the estimate comes from statistical analysis of the genetic variation.
Although the seals now get lots of attention, there are still many mysteries. Even the timing of the switch from rapid population growth to rapid decline is not precisely known.
Schultz said the low genetic diversity does not mean that helping the seal population recover is a hopeless proposition, but it does enhance risk. With less genetic diversity, the chance that an epidemic disease could sweep through is greater. This happened to the Mediterranean monk seals with the past decade.
"The fact that there is high genetic connectivity among the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (all seals interbreed freely) means that a disease could easily move up the island chain," Schultz said. "This is why it is so important for humans to not get too close (and to keep their pets away) from seals."
Besides, close approaches are against the law. Monk seals are entitled to at least 100 feet of space, more for nursing mothers and pups.
Schultz said it is a hopeful but puzzling sign that seals have began recolonizing the main islands. Not only that, the seals found now around Maui and other inhabited islands are "fat and happy," while the main population in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is going hungry.
Despite competing with human fishermen, the seals are finding something to eat. A new research program will use DNA analysis of seal fat to determine what prey species are important in their diet. The seals will eat most anything.
Schultz said she suspects that part of the reason the seals are doing better in the main islands is there may be less competition and/or fewer predators.
As for the reason that the Hawaiian monk seal never developed a great deal of genetic variation compared with other seals, nobody knows, according to Schultz, but it must have gone through repeated population bottlenecks. Possibly, the variations in sea level in the Hawaiian Islands contributed. Rising seas could have eliminated beaches the seal needed for resting.
"We don't know if it has always been low" since monk seals first reached Hawaii, or if there have been population explosions followed by crashes, she said.
Now that more is known about the genetic characteristics of the seals, biologists can think about analyzing families to see which are more successful in bringing up pups. This could lead to refined management strategies.
Schultz recently succeeded in her oral defense of her dissertation and will be awarded her doctorate degree this summer. She has been named a Young Scholar of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, known as SOEST and will continue research at the University of Hawaii for the next year on seals, lemon sharks and pygmy angelfish.
She and a friend, Timothy McGovern, an ocean technician, also have a nonprofit organization, Marine Realm, with a Web site devoted to providing a multimedia experience to students interested in pursuing careers in marine science.
On the Net:
* Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center monk seal research: www.nmfs.hawaii.edu/psd/mmrp/monkseals.php
* Marine Realm: marinerealm.org/
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.
* This story includes a correction from the original published on Monday, Mar. 16, 2009. The name of the marine sciences school at thge University of Hawaii was incorrect.