Young Seals Keep Getting Eels Stuck Up Their Noses, Confounding Scientists

The situation is frustrating those who care for Hawaii's native population of monk seals, already considered an endangered species.

A seal with an eel up its nose.
Brittany Dolan/NOAA / Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program/Facebook (GPL Aaron Homer)

The situation is frustrating those who care for Hawaii's native population of monk seals, already considered an endangered species.

Young monk seals, an endangered species of seal native to the northwestern Hawaiian islands, keep showing up with eels stuck in their nasal cavities — and biologists aren’t sure why, CNN is reporting.

On Monday, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program posted a rather uncomfortable photo on their Facebook page, showing a juvenile monk seal with an eel lodged up his nose.

“Mondays… it might not have been a good one for you but it had to have been better than an eel in your nose. We have reported on this phenomenon before which was first noted a few years back. We have now found juvenile seals with eels stuck in their noses on multiple occasions. In all cases the eel was successfully removed and the seals were fine. The eels, however, did not make it.”

As mentioned in the Facebook post, this is at once not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the animal who happened to be photographed that day. In fact, the matter of eels inserting themselves into the pinnipeds’ nasal cavities is confusing the marine biologists who are trying to save the endangered animals.

Charles Littnan, the project’s lead scientist, says that this is the first time he’s seen anything like this in his career.

“We’ve been intensively monitoring monk seals for four decades and in all of that time, nothing like this has happened. Now it’s happened three or four times and we have no idea why.”

How Are The Eels Getting There?

Scientists aren’t sure, but a couple of theories have been floated. One is that it’s a defensive measure on the part of the eels, who launch themselves into the nasal cavities to avoid being eaten. Another theory is that the seals eat the eels, and then they wind up getting regurgitated through their nasal cavities.

How Do They Get Them Out?

Carefully, according to People. Specifically, the eels have to be pulled firmly yet gently, enough to dislodge the animal’s teeth from the seal’s nasal cavities while — at the same time — not ripping the eel in half. All the while, the veterinarians doing the procedure have to be careful not to risk hurting the seal.

Littnan calls it not unlike a “magician’s trick.”

Is This Endangering The Seals?

Probably not. So far the four seals to have gotten eels stuck up their noses have survived the extraction procedure and returned to their normal lives, and, as of this writing, this problem doesn’t appear to be a prominent health concern for the endangered marine mammals.

However, that’s not to say that having an eel stuck up its nose is just an inconvenience for any unlucky seal. The animals block their nasal cavities when they dive below the water, and the eel can interfere with that. The invasive species also put the marine mammals at risk of infection.