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World’s rarest seals have a secret breeding cave in Cyprus

An endangered Mediterranean monk seal.

An endangered Mediterranean monk seal.

The world’s rarest seals have been caught on camera in secret breeding caves in northern Cyprus. The new breeding sites provide hope for a struggling species, but the caves are now in need of protection.

Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) are the most endangered of all the pinniped species — a group that includes seals, sea lions, sea otters and walruses — with just 700 individuals left in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of endangered species. A large number of those seals live in and around Cyprus.

Due to human pressures, such as bycatch and tourism, the monk seals have been forced to raise their pups inside cave systems, rather than their usual open beaches, on the island. A new study using camera traps, carried out by researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K. and the Society for the Protection of Turtles (SPOT) in Cyprus, has revealed several previously unknown breeding caves in northern Cyprus, the first to be found along the north coast of the island.

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“The study has found regular breeding, identified important sites and shown some seals are using the site year after year,” lead author Damla Beton, a marine biologist at SPOT, said in a video about the study. “It is very important to make sure that these sites are protected.”

Forced into caves

For centuries fishers across the Mediterranean have killed monk seals for a variety of reasons: the seals damage their fishing gear; they compete for the same fish prey; and the seal skin can be sold on the black market for its unsubstantiated health benefits. More recently, fishers have captured the seals for use in the aquarium trade as performers; meanwhile, the pinnipeds have lost habitat to the tourism industry, according to the Seal Conservation Society in the U.K..

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