New fossil seal species rewrites history

Te Papa marine mammal curator Dr Felix Marx with the skull of Eomonachus belegaerensis. Photo by Jack Fisher. Te Papa

A new species of monk seal has been identified in Te Papa’s fossil collections, and the discovery radically changes scientists’ understanding of how seal species evolved around the world.

The new species is named Eomonachus belegaerensis (dawn monk seal from Belegaer), after the sea of Belegaer which lies west of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

It was identified based on seven specimens found on south Taranaki beaches between 2009 and 2016 by local fossil hunters.

Around 2.5 metres in length and weighing around 200–250kg, Eomonachus belegaerensis lived in the waters around New Zealand some three million years ago.

It was previously thought that all true seals originated in the North Atlantic, with some later crossing the equator to live as far south as Antarctica.

Eomonachus now shows that many ancient seals, including the ancestors of today’s monk, elephant and Antarctic seals, actually evolved in the Southern Hemisphere.

The discovery was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. It is part of a trans-Tasman collaboration involving Te Papa and Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, and Monash University and Museums Victoria in Australia.

Palaeontologist James Rule of Monash University led the research.

“This discovery really turns seal evolution on its head,” Rule says.

“Until now, we thought that all true seals originated in the northern hemisphere, and then crossed the equator just once or twice during their entire evolutionary history.

“Instead, many of them appear to have evolved in the southern Pacific, and then criss-crossed the equator up to eight times.”

Te Papa curator of marine mammals Dr Felix Marx said the discovery was a triumph for citizen science.

“This new species has been discovered thanks to numerous, exceptionally well-preserved fossils – all of which were found by members of the public,” he says.

Dr Marx is hopeful about future discoveries of new species in New Zealand’s ancient past.

“New Zealand is incredibly rich in fossils, and so far we have barely scratched the surface. Who knows what else is out there?” he says.

The new species was identified by examining the skull and comparing it to known seal species.

This is not the first time spectacular fossils from Taranaki have come to light. In August this year, Te Papa curator Alan Tennyson helped to describe a new crested penguin, Eudyptes atatu, from the same site.

Te Papa acknowledges Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine, in whose rohe the fossils were found.

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About Te Papa’s fossil collection

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, known as Te Papa, has one of the world’s most important collections of marine mammal specimens, including living species and fossils of extinct whales, dolphins, and seals. Te Papa has tens of thousands of fossil specimens, ranging from tiny bone fragments to complete skeletons. Four of the fossils that led to this discovery are held by Te Papa, with three held by Canterbury Museum.

About monk seals

Unlike their cold-loving relatives in the Arctic and Antarctic, Monk seals prefer the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, Hawai‘i and – until their extinction there in the 1950s – the Caribbean.

Download a copy of the paper