A bizarre photo of a seal with an eel up its nose has gone viral, and researchers can’t work out why it keeps happening

A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal was found with a spotted eel in its nose at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal was found with a spotted eel in its nose at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
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NOAA Fisheries / Brittany Dolan

  • The above photo of a Hawaiian monk seal with an eel stuck up its nose has gone viral.
  • Speaking to the press, researchers said it’s actually become a common sighting in recent years.
  • Charles Littnan, the lead scientist of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, theorized that it may occur when seals are rooting around coral reefs.
  • So far, the seals, which are endangered, have not suffered any health issues once the eels are removed. However, the eels have died.
  • No one really knows why this bizarre phenomenon keeps happening, or why it’s only been spotted in the last few years.

You may have seen the above photo circulating on social media in recent days.

The image was posted on Facebook by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, a division of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration based on Oahu.

In the days following, this hapless Hawaiian monk seal with an eel stuck in its nose captured the internet’s heart as people wondered how and why such a thing might have occurred.

It also prompted a series of jokes at the seal’s (and the eel’s) expense.

“Look at his face,” New York Daily News opinion editor Josh Greenman said in a tweet. “In the Hawaiian seal community, that’s called ‘doing eel.'”

“It’s just a fad the younger seals are into, it’ll pass,” another Twitter user added.

“Like when you sneeze while eating spaghetti?” another asked.

Jokes aside, it turns out this bizarre and relatively comical phenomenon is not uncommon in the monk seal community.

“We’ve been intensively monitoring monk seals for four decades and in all of that time nothing like this has happened,” Charles Littnan, the lead scientist at the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, told The Guardian.

“Now it’s happened three or four times, and we have no idea why.”

The research program follows the movements of six monk seal subpopulations, with the aim of achieving an optimal and sustainable Hawaiian monk seal population.

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In 2016, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program posted on Facebook when they first discovered a seal with an eel in its snout.

“It was definitely weird, as the eel was almost 2 feet long,” researchers wrote in the post. “It was almost like those magician trick scarves that they just keep pulling out of the hat.

monk seal

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Wikimedia Commons/ MarkSullivan

“We are pretty sure the complete animal was removed, as the skull was found, but some fins or spines may have come off the eel during the removal.”

The phenomenon has since been spotted three or four times, according to Littnan, and it could cause the seals serious health complications either via infection or by keeping them from shutting their nostrils during deep dives.

“Having a rotten fish inside your nose is bound to cause some problems,” Littnan said.

No one is quite sure why the seals keep getting eels stuck up their noses, but it may have to do with their feeding practices, as seals often shove their snouts into coral reef crevices in search of food.

“Alternatively, it could be the seal had swallowed an eel and regurgitated it, with the eel subsequently coming out the wrong way,” Littnan told Motherboard. “We might never know.”

As for why humans are spotting this bizarre occurrence only now, Littnan put it down to chance: “If you observe nature long enough, you’ll see strange things,” he told The Guardian.

Fortunately, the encounters so far have proved nonproblematic for the seals. However, the eels were not so lucky.

Hawaiian monk seals are an endangered species endemic to the Hawaiian islands, which have seen numbers dwindle significantly since the 1950s because of fishing, entanglement in marine debris, and loss of shoreline habitat.