Neomonachus tropicalis (Gray, 1850:28)

Caribbean monk seal, West Indian monk seal, West Indian seal, Jamaica seal



Taxonomy & Nomenclature

Synonym/s: Phoca tropicalis Gray, 1850 (protonym); Monachus tropicalis (Gray, 1850:28)


Conservation Status


Last record: 1952 (Rice, 1973; Fisher & Blomberg, 2012); 1962 (Goodwin & Goodwin, 1973)

IUCN RedList status: Extinct


The Caribbean monk seal formerly inhabited the waters of the Caribbean, extending northwards through the Gulf of Mexico and up to the USA, before its extinction just into the second half of last century, Its extinction can be largely attributed to large-scale hunting, as well as the probable effects of inbreeding which may have taken its toll once the last known population at Seranilla Bank fell below the viability threshold. Numerous reports of the species have been claimed since the last confirmed sighting, which occurred in 1952. However these probably refer to mistaken identifications of Hooded seals as argued by (Mignucci-Giannoni & Odell, 2001) and others.


Caribbean Monk seals in captivity

"In the spring of 1897, a representative of Saunders and Company, a big fishery firm operating a fleet of -boats out of Pensacola, Florida, called at the Park when passing through Washington. During this visit he mentioned, incidentally, that some of their fishermen had recently reported seeing a few seals on certain little islands near Yucatan. He said that if the Park would care to have some, he would have them caught. 

This report at first seemed very improbable, as the seals of the Atlantic coast would not be likely to go so far to the south. Then it was realized that the animals reported might be survivors of the West Indian seal (Monachus tropicalis), which was abundant there two hundred years ago, but had long been supposed extinct. So it seemed worth while to try for some of the animals, whatever they were, and the offer was gratefully accepted. 

The West Indian seal was first mentioned by Dampier in 1675, in his account of Two Voyages to Campeachey, where he called it the "Jamaica seal." The species then existed in great numbers, but, as they were fat and yielded a valuable oil, they were rapidly killed off" during succeeding years. Naturally the Park felt much interest as to what, if anything, would come from Saunders and Company, and when, a few weeks later, a telegram was received that two seals were on the way from Pensacola, curiosity rose to a peak. 

The animals arrived in excellent condition and were seen at once to be the long-lost West Indian seal. The Park reported its find to other zoos, some of which commissioned Saunders and Company to bring up specimens for them, and naturalists for the first time had an opportunity to see what this seal looked like." (Mann, 1930:124-125)



Waters around the Caribbean


Biology & Ecology




MCZ 6274 (skeleton; sex unspecified)

MCZ 6520 (mounted skin; sex unspecified)

MCZ 6579 (mounted skin; sex unspecified)

MCZ 8605 (skin and skeleton; sex unspecified)





Seven photographs of wild seals were taken during a hunt in June 1900 (Adam & Garcia, 2003; Jørgensen, 2021:175).


There appears to only be two photographs of living animals in captivity, both taken in the New York Aquarium in 1910 and both published in (Anonymous, 1910). Although that same publication notes that: "The photographer has been requested to try again, so that the scientist of the future may have all possible documentary evidence as to the general appearance of the animal in life, and its actual existence as late as the year 1910". However, no further photos appear to have been taken despite the clear intention of doing so, and of the repeated emphasis that the three individuals in the aquarium's collection would probably be the last ever held in captivity with the species to become extinct shortly thereafter (Anonymous, 1910). Though two contemporary drawings were made (Epting, 2010).






Original scientific description:

Gray, J. E. (1850). Catalogue of the specimens of the Mammalia in the collections of the British Museum. Part 2. Seals. British Museum of Natural History, London, United Kingdom.


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