A Hawaiian Monk Seal is pictured in this
James Watt  /  AFP - Getty Images file
A Hawaiian monk seal navigates a reef.
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updated 9/5/2006 12:11:36 PM ET 2006-09-05T16:11:36

In a brightly lit room tucked among the rambling old buildings of the Bishop Museum, Ken Longenecker is sifting through a pile of tiny fish bones.

The zoologist's task is tedious and the smell from the bones — gleaned from the regurgitated meal of an endangered Hawaiian monk seal — can be vile. But the goal is one of the world's most critical: rescuing an animal from extinction.

"These guys are on the brink, honestly," Longenecker said as he explained a forensic challenge far more complex and desperate than what any TV writer could dream up.

Between the 1950s and early 1970s the monk seal population dropped unexpectedly by 50 percent. Now numbering somewhere around 1,200, the Hawaiian monk seal has failed to rebound despite efforts to protect its main habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the waters around which recently became a national monument.

The seals also have a developing but smaller outpost on the main Hawaiian Islands, where they are occasionally spotted by residents and tourists.

Among the seals' most prominent problems are skinny pups that have trouble surviving through their first years.

With the seals' numbers projected to potentially plummet below 1,000 in the next five years, scientists are in a race to figure out why the shy, up to nearly 600-pound animals are disappearing from the islands.

"It's really hard on an emotional level to know the clock is ticking," said Jen Palmer, Conservation Scientist with the Bellevue, Wash.-based Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Known in Hawaiian as "ilio holo i ka uaua," or dog that runs in rough water, the seals' English name is inspired in part by the animals' solitary ways.

Caribbean counterparts extinct
Monk seals broke off from the main evolutionary branch of seals about 12 million years ago and are believed to have since remained unchanged. Already the Hawaiian monk seal's counterpart in the Caribbean is extinct. And the Mediterranean monk seal is estimated to number 500 at most.

With most of their lives spent in the water, much of the Hawaiian seals' habits and even their main habitat along the remote string of islands extending some 1,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean have been a puzzle.

"In the marine environment, so much of what the animals do is a complete secret because you're not quite sure where they're going at any given time," said Charles Littnan, foraging ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service's Hawaiian monk seal research program.

A years-long investigation by the service, the Bishop Museum, the University of Hawaii, Dalhousie University in Canada and others is trying to find out what is happening to the seals.

Longenecker's part of the project is to match bones found in their spew and scat to those in the museum's collection of local specimens to figure out what the seals are eating.

The samples include bags of liquid feces and buckets of sun-dried seal throwup brought back to the museum by researchers studying the seals during summers trips to the sparse, remote islands and keen-eyed passersby on the main islands.

While concerns remain for the Hawaiian seal regarding the potential for disease and deadly run-ins with discarded fishing gear, the study has put a particular focus on the seals' nutritional struggles.

Not enough food
Each of the Hawaiian monk seals' six main sub-populations in the islands has its own challenges, including sharks preying on young seals at the animals' largest home base along French Frigate Shoals. But all the populations are unified by one factor — they're not getting enough food, Littnan said.

The big questions that need to be answered include: How is the seals' environment affecting their diet? Are other species of predators beating them to their prey? Is a large scale environmental change knocking the seals out of their ecological niche? And what has been the role of people in the seals' struggles?

Finding answers is made particularly difficult by the bounty of the ocean surrounding the islands.

While most seals in colder waters prey chiefly on about five species, the Hawaiian monk seals' diet appears to incorporate 28 species of cephalopods — squids and similar animals — alone, Littnan said.

That diversity makes Longenecker's job tough and slow-going. It is also complicated by the fact that the visual markers, such as spines and color, usually used to identify a species are often gone once he receives the sometimes weeks or months old specimens.

"I feel pretty good about myself when I figure out which species has been eaten," said Longenecker on a recent day when he was contending mostly with the remains of a tangle of eels but had also been able to separate out parts of a few fish, such as the head of a scorpionfish.

In three years of work, he still can't classify about 5 percent of the fish remains he's seen even within a family of fish.

Beetles help out
To expand his ability to identify more of the samples, he has been working to broaden the museum's collection by bringing in new specimens. The month-long identification process includes drying the whole fish and then placing it in a box with carrion beetles to gently remove the flesh and reveal the bones underneath.

Meanwhile Longenecker consults with the researchers trying to unravel the seals' diet by analyzing the fatty acids found in small biopsies of seal blubber. And the animals continue to be tracked for their behavior and watched for disease and signs of contamination from pollutants.

"Every person takes a very tiny bit of the puzzle and you hope at some point you ... put it all together and it makes a pretty clear picture," said Littnan, who expresses some hope for the seals' future.

"Some people throw out the term 'evolutionary dead end.' ... I think that's an easy out to say that. It's kind of a giving up sort of statement," Littnan said.

The seals themselves have at least implemented one lifestyle change on their own.

There are no recorded births on the main Hawaiian islands until the 1990s. Now about 10 pups are born each year here, where sharks and other natural competitors for prey are more scarce. Thirteen pups have been born in 2006 so far, mostly on Kauai.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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