Bifurcated tongues and Hawaiian Monk Seals
I woke this morning dreaming that I was driving north from Kapaa up the rise on the highway just past Kealia. Two days ago, a bunch of cars and trucks were parked along this stretch of Kauai’s coastal highway. Surfers. Yesterday, as I drove home from Lihue, I glanced makai
(toward the ocean) at just the right moment and saw a whale breach.
This is life in Hawaii in the winter.
But in my dream, I came upon a blue truck that I recognized, stopped crosswise in the road. A woman, my neighbor, was struggling to open the hood. A man, a stranger, was waving at me, indicating I should back up. I did. That’s when I saw the seals, five of them, spread out, galumphing along the side of the road.
I always have strange dreams after a necropsy.
That is, when I am able to get to sleep.
Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi
) spend two-thirds of their lives in the sea, where they dive with the ease and grace of a ballerina. The one-third of their life on land is usually spent sleeping at the water’s edge. Sometimes, they’ll haul out higher on the beach, if they don’t want a rising tide to wake them with a slap of water to the face. Or if they are a mother who is nursing her pup. But they certainly don’t travel inland a half-mile.
Hawaiian monk seals sport short fore-flippers that help with direction when they are swimming. On land, their fore-flippers just give them a good fulcrum from which to push off and galumph up the beach. They sort move like a caterpillar. A really big caterpillar. Unlike sea lions, Hawaiian monk seals cannot walk on all fours.
As a volunteer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, I sometimes help with necropsies. That is, animal autopsies. Whenever one of these endangered earless seals from the Phocidae family dies, a necropsy is performed in the hopes that something will be learned to help save the species.
I always learn something new whenever I participate in one of these.
Yesterday, it was that Hawaiian monk seals actually have toenails. (O.K., claws.) They are tiny, probably vestigial, and likely perform no function. But, still, they have toenails. I’ve helped with a handful of necropsies. I’ve spread a seal’s tail flippers looking for signs of tags that may have broken and fallen off. But I’d never noticed toenails before. (They do have “fingernails” on their fore-flippers, no more than an inch in length and shorter toward the fifth finger, er, digit. A good pair of binoculars will reveal this feature. That is, if the seal’s flipper is clean of sand. I find it’s easier to take a picture with a super telephoto lens, download the images on the computer and zoom in.)
A couple months ago, I helped with the necropsy of one of our senior citizen seals, no doubt the alpha male around here and father of many. He was at least 27 years old, and I fell in love with his liver. It was big and beautiful. A work of art.
In my first seal necropsy, I discovered seal whiskers, called vibrissae. They are stiff, straw-like, not like the soft pliable whiskers of my two dogs’. Sometimes one or two vibrissae will curl in a corkscrew, and I learned you cannot tug the corkscrew straight and watch it bounce back into shape. They don’t work like that. They do work, it is thought, to help seals detect prey movement in the water, sort of like well-tuned antennas.
And any marine mammal that spends most of its life in the water and whose deepest known dive is some 1800 feet has some mighty lungs, taking up two-thirds of its body cavity.
The old man seal had hardly a tooth left in his mouth, and those he did have were worn down to nubs. Yesterday’s seal, a juvenile, had a beautiful set of teeth. I counted four incisors, two canines and 10 molars in each jaw. The incisors were lined up in pairs.
One of the absolute coolest hidden features of the Hawaiian monk seal anatomy could be its tongue. It’s split at the end. Not a vertical split but angled, so one part of the tongue rests on the other. Perhaps to help it nurse as a pup?
Necropsies are amazing experiences for me, intimate encounters with a wild animal. But there’s no denying the events are also depressing, especially when foul play is suspected. The conscious mind says one dead Hawaiian monk seal means one fewer in a population that is already declining at approximately 4.5% per year. The unconscious mind provides the poor sleep and the weird dreams. But I’m O.K. with that. Whatever I can do to help.