Scientists from an Australian University have discovered a hitherto unknown species of gigantic monk seal, which lived three million years ago in the Southern Hemisphere, from fossils found in New Zealand.
The discovery of the new species, which measured about 2.5 meters long and whose weight exceeded 200 kilograms, provides new clues about the evolution of these marine animals since it is the oldest found on the entire planet.
The seal was christened Eomonachus belegaerensis (Belegaer’s dawn monk seal), alluding to “the fictional sea that lies west of Middle-earth in JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, often associated with New Zealand,” the lead author of the study, James Rule, from Australia’s Monash University, in The Conversation magazine.
Eomonachus belegaerensis is the first species of monk seal, alive or extinct, to be discovered in the Southern Hemisphere, according to research by a group of seven Eomonachus skulls that were found between 2009 and 2016 found off the coast of Taranaki, on the north island of New Zealand.
The scientists in charge of the research highlighted that the discovery “rewrite the history of evolution” of seals living today, including monks, elephants and some Antarctic seal species, according to findings published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.
The study indicates that the “monachines”, the seals that inhabit the Southern Hemisphere, could have crossed the equator, whose warm waters had always been believed to represent a thermal barrier for the movement of marine mammals.
“If there is a southern origin for ‘monachines’, this would mean that the group crossed Ecuador at least eight times throughout its evolutionary history, “the authors specified, noting that they were later able to return to the northern area.
Scientists also recalled that 2.5 million years ago there was a extinction of marine megafauna, probably due to the decrease in the water level as a result of the cooling of the planet, a phenomenon that affected prehistoric seals such as the Eomonachus.
According to Rule and his colleagues, that suggests that climate change endangers the last two monk seal species left on the planet, as the sea level rise it could deprive them of the beaches they need to rest and increases in water temperatures could disrupt their food webs.
Monk seals, considered the rarest marine animals on the planet, are in danger of extinction and it is estimated that there are fewer than 2,100 specimens currently in the Mediterranean and Hawaii, given that those of the Caribbean were hunted in the 1950s until their disappearance.