Endangered Monk Seal Pups Rescued Successfully: What does this mean for Conservation Genetics?

Photo from the Underwater Research Society

A pair of Mediterranean monk seal pups has been rescued off of the Angean coast in Turkey last Friday. The seals are injured, but are recuperating successfully in a wildlife rehabilitation centre in northern Turkey.

Although we’re happy to tell you these seals are doing well, we can’t say the same for the 98 others that compose the remainder of this population. These 100 monk seals are highly endangered, and have moved from the Mediterranean to this Angean region. As you may be able to tell, this problem might be rather challenging to combat.

At first, the problem on monk seal population decline was a factor of poaching in the region. However, the Angean coast and the increased tourism seen within this area are proving to be detrimental to this population. Vast amounts of expansion and concrete development on this coast are stressing these monk seals.

The problem continues to rise as developers continue to seek land in this region. Just weeks ago, the tourism sector in the Andean region proposed development on 200 bays in the area, which will no doubt have a negative impact on our aquatic friends.

Photo from the Underwater Research Society

The problem with Endangerment

We all know that having low numbers of a certain species is quite troublesome. Obviously, less of one species makes it that much easier to drive the species to extinction. However, the problem is much deeper than that, and can be explained with a little biology.

Genetics tells us that we get one copy of genes from our mother, and one from our father, who are quite different in their genetic makeup. The reason why many organisms and species are able to resist diseases and disturbances is because every individual is genetically different enough to withstand it. Think of “Farmer John” who decides to plant tomatoes and corn, and “Farmer Jake”, who only plants tomatoes. If a pest comes and is capable of wiping out tomatoes, Jake won’t have anything left. However, John will, because his crops were more diverse than Jake’s.

This same concept applies to species. When there are only 100 monk seals left in the population, there’s less diversity in their genes. When they breed, they won’t be as genetically different; in fact, they’ll be rather similar to each other. So similar, that one simple disturbance could make or break their species. And even if we are able to bring them back to higher population levels, it will take them a long time before the genetic diversity in the population increases.

This is why it is so important to be preventative: to NOT let Mediterranean monk seal populations decline. We simply cannot afford to lose biodiversity, or change it in a way that is not repairable.