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First Hawaiian Monk Seal to Receive a CT Scan Released Back to the Wild After Her Second Round of Rehabilitation

Hawaiian monk seal RH38 proved to have a diagnostic case so complex it united scientists from around the country on the goal to save a member of one of the most endangered marine mammal species in the world.


August 23, 2019

Photo by Kim Steutermann Rogers © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA permit #18786


Hawaiian monk seal RH38 had already been a patient in need of medical care. In late 2017, our veterinarians diagnosed and treated her for malnutrition and a heavy parasite load at Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona that is dedicated to saving this endangered species. During her three-month rehabilitation, RH38 more than doubled in weight and was successfully released back to Kaua‘i for a second chance at life.

The Kaua‘i Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui monitored this juvenile monk seal throughout 2018 and early 2019—routinely observing her in good body condition. But in March, her body condition suddenly began to rapidly decline. It was clear she needed medical attention once again. She was promptly rescued and rushed to our Hawai‘i hospital via a U.S. Coast Guard flight.

Photo © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA permit #18786


This second time caring for RH38 presented an incredible puzzle. Just like with all of our patients, our veterinarians performed an admit exam. They tested for dozens of diseases, toxins and parasites in order to diagnose RH38 and administer the appropriate treatment.

Initial tests found that RH38 was suffering from weakness, infection, broad-scale inflammation and malnutrition. Our veterinarians began a treatment regimen, but despite their efforts, she did not show signs of improvement.

Photo © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA permit #18786


Our veterinarians grew concerned. They knew they needed answers quickly in order to help this endangered animal. RH38 needed a village to help her. So experts from around the country put their minds together to help solve her mysterious case.

Their recommendation? Transport RH38 to North Hawai‘i Community Hospital on Hawai‘i Island.

That's how RH38 became the first wild Hawaiian monk seal to receive a CT scan. The Center's veterinary experts anesthetized her and then her entire body was scanned. They closely investigated the different organ systems that were showing signs of damage. Ultimately, the results allowed our veterinarians to pinpoint the underlying causes of RH38’s illness.

The answer proved to be muscle inflammation and infection in RH38’s back flippers. Having spread to her bloodstream, it caused a wide range of other problems, a condition called sepsis. Based on the location and extent of the muscle damage, our veterinarians suspected trauma as the underlying cause of her suffering.

Photo © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA permit #18786


It’s still unclear if the trauma was natural or human-caused. Natural causes of trauma include interactions with predators or other seals, and a variety of hazards such as debris in heavy surf and eroding rocks along shorelines where seals haul out to rest. Accidental sources of human-caused trauma can include a boat strike, vehicle injury or dog bite. And, although it’s rare, there have been cases of humans intentionally inflicting trauma on seals.

In addition, RH38 was molting at the time of her rescue. Though molting is a natural annual process in which monk seals shed the top layer of their hair and skin, this event uses a lot of their body’s energy. Our veterinarians suspected that because of the molt, RH38’s body wasn't able to clear the infection caused by the trauma.

As a result of her sepsis, RH38 had infections in a variety of organs. She was treated for pneumonia, corneal damage, a skin infection and kidney infections that produced kidney stones and a liver infection.

Once RH38’s problems were pinpointed, the Center’s veterinary experts treated her with antibiotics, pain medications and laser therapy. It was remarkable to see how quickly she regained her health. As she grew stronger, her appetite returned with full force. She eagerly foraged for food hidden within educational “toys,” by our animal care volunteers (referred to as enrichment items by experts).

Photo by Heidi Nikolai © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA Permit #18786


Within a few weeks, RH38 was showing signs that she was ready to be released. She was transported back to Kaua‘i in late July and galumphed back into her ocean home.

The opportunity to treat RH38 and investigate her illness allowed scientists, including the Center’s experts and others from around the country, to learn even more about this endangered species and understand how to better treat patients in the future. All of the information gained from this complex case adds to the collective understanding of this rare species.

Though thought to be unrelated, the number and complexity of RH38’s ailments highlight the seriousness of threats to this endangered species in the wild. She puts the spotlight on the need for ongoing, expert care that The Marine Mammal Center and partners such as NOAA provide.

“For an endangered marine mammal like the Hawaiian monk seal, the release of every individual is critical to help boost the overall population,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, Vice President of Veterinary Medicine and Science at The Marine Mammal Center. “RH38’s recovery is an incredible success story that was full of medical complexities and highlights the importance of our ongoing partnerships to help save this species.”

Photo by Laura Grote © The Marine Mammal Center. NOAA permit #18786


Our work in Hawai‘i is dedicated to the conservation of Hawaiian monk seals. The Center is a member of the Pacific Islands Region Marine Mammal Response Network and is responsible for monitoring the seals that haul out on Hawai‘i Island. The Marine Mammal Center has rehabilitated and released 28 monk seals, including RH38 twice, since opening Ke Kai Ola in 2014. The Center is proud to partner with NOAA to support conservation efforts for the Hawaiian monk seal. NOAA researchers estimate the current monk seal population to be about 1,400 animals—about 30 percent of those monk seals are alive today directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and its partners.

You Can Be a Hawaiian Monk Seal Hero

Thanks to generous people like you, the Hawaiian monk seal species has been given a second chance at survival. You can make a real difference for this endangered species and all of the marine mammals in our care by giving today.

Thank you for caring about marine mammals and their ocean home.


 

Related:

Learn about: Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation

Read more: Sea Lions Are the Latest Species Impacted by Changing Ocean Conditions

Learn how you can: Visit Ke Kai Ola

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