Monachus tropicalis

(Gray, 1850) - West Indian monk seal

Distinctive Characteristics

The West Indian or Caribbean, monk seal is now considered extinct; none have been seen since the early 1950's. It is described here in hopes that some individuals still survive, and can be identified so that they can be adequately protected. Very little is known of the biology or appearance of this seal, but it is believed to have been similar to the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals.

Coloration is said to have been brown above, blending to yellowish white below. No information exists on potential differences between the sexes. Like Hawaiian monk seals, West Indian monk seals were said to occasionally have green algae growing on the pelage. Pup were born in a soft woolly coat that persisted for an unknown period of time.

The dental formula is I 2/2, C 1/1, PC 5/5.

Can be confused with

Feral California sea lions have been reported from the Gulf of Mexico. Hooded, harbour, and less frequently, harp seals are known to stray occasionally as far south as the central and east coast of Florida, near the edges of the West Indian monk seal's former range. Monk seals can easily be distinguished from all of the above.


Adult West Indian monk seals reached at least 2.4 m in length (females may have been slightly larger than males). Hawaiian monk seals of comparable length to the largest reported for West Indian monk seals weigh 170 to 270 kg. Newborns were probably about 1 m and 16 to 18 kg.

Geographical Distribution

This monk seal once inhabited the entire Caribbean Sea, ranging northwest to the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. In prehistoric times, it may have reached north to the Bahamas and even South Carolina. There were extralimital records from the southeastern United States.

Biology and Behaviour

Evidence from some animals collected in the 19th Century suggested that pups were born in December. Little else is known of this seal's biology, except that they were said to “bark in a hoarse, gurgling, death-rattle tone.”


This monk seal is now thought to be extinct, in large part because of exploitation by humans. It is the only pinniped species to become extinct in modern times. This seal was likely to have been taken opportunistically by native peoples of the region, although this is not documented. Early explorers took monk seals for meat and fat to produce oil. Soon a thriving seal fishery developed throughout the region and the population was quickly depleted. The last report of a sighting was from Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and Honduras, in 1952. There have been several surveys since that time and no evidence of the West Indian monk seal has been found.

IUCN Status