A tale of two species

Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 09:16 AM.

The monk seals managed to hang on, but by the end of the 19th century, they were virtually extinct. Not just constant slaughter, but overfishing, which robbed them of their food source, put them on the brink. Nevertheless there were occasional sightings into the 20th century. Six seals were brought into Pensacola in 1915. In 1922, a seal was killed near Key West. There were sightings off the Texas coast in the 1920’s and 30’s. The last confirmed sighting of the Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 of a lone individual between Honduras and Jamaica. In 2008, after a five year survey, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the species is extinct.

So what did we lose with the demise of the Caribbean monk seal? The short answer is we don’t know. We do know that the losses of apex predators like the monk seal in other ecosystems causes a cascade of changes and that other species suffer. The diversity and richness of the system is altered. We don’t know what the Gulf was like when the monk seal had a role to play.

But we’re enlightened now; we wouldn’t let that sort of thing happen again you say. Let’s consider the Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). It’s a pretty little shore bird that nests on sandy beaches along the Gulf coast. It nests on Cape San Blas and Florida Audubon monitors its nesting success. Surveys conducted in 2006 found only 220 pairs left, with 80% occurring in northwest Florida. The Snowy Plover is on the road to extinction not because of its valuable meat or oil, but because of human and dog recreation! Sure, coastal development has destroyed a lot of former habitat, but a quick, playful romp by Rover where he shouldn’t be can prevent a nesting pair of Plovers from raising a chick. A dog running through a colony of nesting seabirds can cause all the birds to panic, consequently leaving their eggs or chicks dangerously exposed to the hot sun. Not to mention the chicks killed by the dog for sport. Was it really worth it to let Rover run through the dunes off leash?

Well, goodbye Monk Seal, and farewell Passenger Pigeon, Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Carolina Parakeet, Pallid Beach Mouse, and all the other species we have wiped out in the last couple of centuries. Are Snowy Plovers next? Do we really want to walk the beaches and not see anything flying or swimming or walking except ourselves?  We could be getting close.

Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.

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