Crittercam footage busts myths about Hawaiian monk seals

Crittercam footage busts myths about Hawaiian monk seals
Published: Feb. 11, 2014 at 4:23 AM HST
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Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Video still courtesy: National Geographic
Courtesy: Diane Pike
Courtesy: Diane Pike

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Scientists are using crittercams and crowdsourcing to bust myths about Hawaiian monk seals.  The incredible footage they're gathering from little cameras mounted onto the seals' backs are dispelling misconceptions many have had about the endangered species.

Researchers are halfway into a three-year project to learn more about the Hawaiian monk seal and they've teamed up with students at local schools to help them review hundreds of hours of footage tracking the seals' movement from their own point of view.

From frolicking on the sand and dodging sharks in the deep blue to hunting for their next meal, the crittercams captures it all.

"They're actually something pretty miraculous and amazing to watch when they're underwater and I think it's a treasure of Hawai'i that hopefully when people view this, they will come to appreciate the animal," described Dr. Charles Littnan, the lead scientist in the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, a NOAA Fisheries Service.

According to Littnan, there are only about 1,100 monk seals left and nearly 200 now live near the main Hawaiian Islands.  Their movement south from the uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian islands has been puzzling, and fisherman have raised concerns about how much food they're eating.

"There are groups that I've worked with that started out with a lot of animosity and a lot of concerns about their food security -- and once we get them with the critter cam, they respect the animal more and they start to get a better sense of what's going on," explained Littnan.

Littnan says one of the biggest misconceptions is that one monk seal eats up to 600 pounds of fish a day.  At that rate they'd have to eat one pound of fish every minute, but scientists say that's not what they're seeing.

"We know that they pass up about 300 fish for every one that they eat, so they are still incredibly selective.  I think that's probably what fishermen appreciate the most is they'll look at all the stuff that they want that the seals are passing by and instead they're eating some tiny little fish in a hole," Littnan said.

Another myth scientists say they've busted is that monk seals are degrading the reef ecosystem.

"You just don't see it.  They're relatively gentle when they're moving around the reef, I mean, the pristine ecosystem up in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands -- the monk seals haven't destroyed that," said Littnan.

Littnan says the crittercam footage has been pretty well-received by those who have seen it.

"The biggest reason we're using crittercams, aside from being a very cool technology, is the fact that it makes everybody equal at the table as scientists.  We all know how to watch something on TV and understand what we're seeing, so it takes apart the dry scientist saying, 'Here are some statistics'," Littnan explained.

Littnan says students are integral to the process.

"The crowdsourcing aspect of the project is the most important piece," Littnan said.

Researchers are expecting 300 to 400 hours of monk seal footage by the time their project is complete and they're working with high school and grade school students from Kaua'i, Moloka'i and O'ahu to analyze everything.  In fact, Littnan says the students review the data before the scientists do.

"They go through it and they inventory everything that's going on and that way when we go to the community and we say, 'Here's the 12 minutes of the most interesting stuff, trust us that the rest you don't need to see' -- the students say, 'Yes, that's right.  It was excruciatingly boring, they made us watch it'," described Littnan, adding the students keep the data reporting honest and may also encourage some to pursue a career in science or technology. 

"It could be the difference between seals surviving and staying here or being pushed into extinction and these students have a very key role in that," said Littnan. 

Finding the right size seal that isn't molting or losing its fur is one of the biggest challenges researchers have faced when it comes to mounting the cameras.

"We sneak up to it on the beach when it's sleeping.  We take a net and we capture it, restrain it, and sedate it and it sleeps through the whole procedure," said Littnan, explaining that the camera itself is glued onto the seals' fur.

"After about four or five days when the camera is full, we have to find the seal again and that's the tricky part -- trying to find a needle in a haystack and they can be anywhere on the island," Littnan said.

"Again we sneak up to them, this time we don't have to sedate them we just hold them for about 30 seconds and we clip a couple metal bands and pull it off.  A cell phone tracker stays on so we can continue to follow the movement so we can continue to understand where the seals go and how deep they dive," described Littnan.

Littnan says the program has one of the best safety records for marine mammals in the world and no seal has been harmed by getting entangled or stuck in anything from having a camera mounted to its back.

Scientists have another year and half to go and they plan to incorporate more female monk seals into their research.

Littnan says outreach is crucial to the program's success.

"We will come share our video and talk with any community member who is interested in hearing about this, including classrooms that may be interested," explained Littnan.


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