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Review
, 27 (5), 927-35

Shifting Baselines and the Extinction of the Caribbean Monk Seal

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Review

Shifting Baselines and the Extinction of the Caribbean Monk Seal

Julio A Baisre. Conserv Biol.

Abstract

The recent extinction of the Caribbean monk seal Monachus tropicalis has been considered an example of a human-caused extinction in the marine environment, and this species was considered a driver of the changes that have occurred in the structure of Caribbean coral reef ecosystems since colonial times. I searched archaeological records, historical data, and geographic names (used as a proxy of the presence of seals) and evaluated the use and quality of these data to conclude that since prehistoric times the Caribbean monk seal was always rare and vulnerable to human predation. This finding supports the hypothesis that in AD 1500, the Caribbean monk seal persisted as a small fragmented population in which individuals were confined to small keys, banks, or isolated islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. This hypothesis is contrary to the assumption that the species was widespread and abundant historically. The theory that the main driver of monk seal extinction was harvesting for its oil for use in the sugar cane industry of Jamaica during the 18th century is based primarily on anecdotal information and is overemphasized in the literature. An analysis of reported human encounters with this species indicates monk seal harvest was an occasional activity, rather than an ongoing enterprise. Nevertheless, given the rarity of this species and its restricted distribution, even small levels of hunting or specimen collecting must have contributed to its extinction, which was confirmed in the mid-20th century. Some sources had been overlooked or only partially reviewed, others misinterpreted, and a considerable amount of anecdotal information had been uncritically used. Critical examination of archaeological and historical records is required to infer accurate estimations of the historical abundance of a species. In reconstructing the past to address the shifting baseline syndrome, it is important to avoid selecting evidence to confirm modern prejudices.

Keywords: Monachus tropicalis; datos históricos; ecología histórica; extinción de especies; historical data; historical ecology; mamíferos marinos; marine mammals; rareza; rarity; shifting baseline syndrome; species extinction; síndrome de puntos de referencia cambiantes; vulnerabilidad; vulnerability.

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