Eels in Seals’ Noses: No One Knows Why

Eels in Seals
Eel in a seal; a juvenile monk seal and friend encountered (and rescued) at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this summer.

ONE EEL UP A SEAL’S NOSE IS AN EVENT. FOUR EELS IN SEALS’ NOSES IS A FAD. Like teenagers swallowing detergent pods, Hawaiian monk seals seem to be chasing a trend – stuffing eels inside in their nostrils.

At least, that appearance baffles staff at the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, an NOAA agency based in Honolulu. Unknown until recently, the researchers have encountered the eels in seal’s noses phenomenon several times in the past two years.

‘WE MIGHT NEVER KNOW”

“We have only started seeing ‘eels in noses’ in the past few years,” says a post on the HMSRP Facebook page. “Yet, our researchers have observed this phenomenon three or four times now. We don’t know if this is a statistical anomaly or if we will see more eels in seals in the future.”

How the eels get in seals’ noses isn’t clear. Looking for prey (which include eels), Hawaiian monks seals forage along coral reefs by sticking their snouts into crevices, under rocks or into the sand.

“This may be a case of an eel that was cornered trying to defend itself or escape,” HMSRP says. “Alternatively, the seal could have swallowed the eel and regurgitated it so that the eel came out the wrong way. We might never know.”

SEALS OKAY, EELS NOT SO MUCH

All of the seals encountered with the phenomenon have been quickly caught and the eels removed by gentle tugging.  All were released and apparently uninjured by the experience. However, none of the eels involved survived.

HMSRP has not indicated if all the eels in seals’ noses are any particular species. Based on its spots, the eel pictured in the apparently otherwise happy seal above appears to be a magnificent snake eel (Myrichthys magnificus), a species endemic to Hawaii.

The photo was posted on the HMSRP Facebook page on December 3. It’s since gone viral, drawing 1,900 “Likes,” 412 comments (many, of course, ironic) and nearly 1,500 shares.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES:  HMSRP December 3rd Facebook post; “Eels in Seals, A Slippery Situation,” Hawaiian Monk Seal Updates, NOAA Fisheries; Make better choices’: Endangered Hawaiian monk seals keep getting eels stuck up their noses and scientists want them to stop,” Washington Post.*

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