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Mediterranean Monk Seal

(Monachus monachus)

Biology

Taxonomy

The first modern scientific description of the Mediterranean monk seal was authored by Johann Hermann in 1779, who studied a single specimen that he found in a travelling show in Strasburg, France. The animal originated from the Adriatic.

In contrast to many erroneous accounts (e.g. Attenborough 1987, Scoullos et al. 1994) still found in popular or scientific literature, Hermann did not name the species Phoca monachus for its supposed solitary habits, but for its appearance (Johnson & Lavigne 1999a, Johnson 2004).

In his description, he wrote: “It looked from the rear not dissimilar to a black monk in the way that its smooth round head resembled a human head covered by a hood, and its shoulders, with the short stretched feet, like two elbows protruding from a scapular...” (Hermann 1779, Johnson 2004).

In 1782, France’s most prominent naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, published his own description of the Mediterranean seal, apparently without realising that Hermann had already done so (Buffon 1782). Buffon came across his seal in a travelling show encamped in Paris in December 1778, and evidently felt sufficiently confident in the precedence of his discovery to christen it le phoque à ventre blanc or the White-bellied seal (Johnson 2004).

In 1785, the Dutch naturalist and physician P. Boddaert, using Buffon’s description as his guide, reclassified the species according to the taxonomic principles of Linnaeus – whose work on systematics the French Count had refuted. Recording its habitat only as the Adriatic, Boddaert transformed Buffon’s phoque à ventre blanc into the suitably Linnaean Phoca albiventer, a name that was to remain in use for many years (Boddaert 1785, King 1956, Johnson 2004).

It was not until 1822, two decades after Hermann’s death in Strasbourg, that British naturalist John Fleming proposed that zoology officially adopt the genus Monachus. Many more years were to pass, however, before synonyms for both the genus and species fell into disuse (Johnson 2004).

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