Hawaiian monk seals are snorting eels and nobody nose why

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program released a photo on Facebook a few days ago of a monk seal with an eel up its nose.

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I think he’s trying to tell the photographer “hey, put the camera down and help me, jerk.”

Accompanying the photo was this caption:

Mondays…it might not have been a good one for you but it had to have been better than an eel in your nose. We have reported on this phenomenon before which was first noted a few years back. We have now found juvenile seals with eels stuck in their noses on multiple occasions. In all cases the eel was successfully removed and the seals were fine. The eels, however, did not make it.

So what’s going on here?

Nobody really knows.

“It’s just so shocking,” Claire Simeone, a veterinarian and monk seal expert based in Hawaii, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “It’s an animal that has another animal stuck up its nose.”

There have been a few other reported instances of seals with eels in their noses, leading scientist Charles Littnan asking the seals to “make better choices” with their lives.

The Washington Post continued:

It all began about two years ago when Littnan, the lead scientist of the monk seal program, woke up to a strange email from researchers in the field. The subject line was short: “Eel in nose.”

“It was just like, ‘We found a seal with an eel stuck in its nose. Do we have a protocol?’ ” Littnan told The Post in a phone interview.

There was none, Littnan said, and it took several emails and phone calls before the decision was made to grab the eel and try pulling it out.

“There was only maybe two inches of the eel actually still sticking out of the nose, so it was very much akin to the magician’s trick when they’re pulling out the handkerchiefs and they keep coming and coming and coming,” he said.

After less than a minute of tugging, a two-and-a-half-foot dead eel emerged from the seal’s nostril.

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Littnan also told the Post that he has no idea why this is happening.

“We have no idea why this is suddenly happening,” Littnan said. “You see some very strange things if you watch nature long enough, and this could end up being one of these little oddities and mysteries of our careers that 40 years from now, we’ll be retired and still questioning quite how this happened.”

A seal’s diet typically consists of fish, octopuses, and eels, but generally they swallow their food like a normal mammal instead of trying to snort it.

Littnan also said that “They like to stick their faces into the coral reef holes, and they’ll spit water out of their mouths to flush things out. And they’ll do all sorts of tricks, but they are shoving their faces into holes.” It’s possible that the eels, who are cornered, think their best course of action is to swim up the seal’s nose. No teeth in the nose, I guess? 

No seals are known to have been seriously injured by having eels up their noses, however sealin’ around doing important seal business with a dead animal in your nose is probably not a great idea.

Littnan told the Post that if seals could understand human people, “I would gently plead for them to stop.”

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest species of seals in the world, and is classified as endangered in the United States. The National Wildlife Foundation estimates that there are only about 1100 monk seals left in the wild, and that number is decreasing at a rate of about 4% each year. One of the causes of their decline is tiger sharks feeding on them, but the main culprit is humans. This comes in the form of entanglement in fishing gear, acidification, and of course… climate change.

Cover image: Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program via Facebook

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.




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