Humans’ selfies are disturbing extremely endangered seals, Instagram study reveals

Scientists made a surprising — and discouraging — discovery while sifting through Instagram photos showing endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

Almost 18 percent of photos tagged #monkseal on the picture-sharing social network appeared to show humans disturbing the extremely endangered creatures, according to a recent study from scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Researchers said in a news release this week that the “study shows selfie culture impacts how people behave when posting images of an endangered species on social media.”

“I could not believe how many people were posting pictures of themselves so close to monk seals,” Mark Sullivan, one of the researchers, said in a statement released by NOAA.

There are only an estimated 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals, and just 300 of those are found in the main Hawaiian islands, according to NOAA Fisheries, which describes the rare animal as “one of the most endangered seal species in the world.”

There are roughly 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of small islands and atolls beyond the archipelago’s larger inhabited islands.

Researchers said the signs of human disturbance in the Instagram pictures included seals “moving away from the photographer/person in frame, making a defensive gesture like mouthing or barking, and looking at the person or camera.”

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Getting so close to the sensitive animals isn’t just careless — it’s illegal.

State and federal rules protect the animals, according to NOAA. The agency recommends spectators stay at least 50 feet away.

The researchers said the study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that more than 22 percent “of the 2,392 Instagram posts examined showed people within 3 meters of a seal.”

“For seal research and conservation activities, NOAA scientists obtain permits that allow them to disturb animals by accident, but I always duck and tip-toe around them,” Sullivan said. “I wouldn’t be doing my job right if I didn’t work hard to avoid scaring them into the water.”

Some have learned the hard way not to interfere with seals: Last year, an Alabama man traveling in Hawaii “was fined $1,500 for touching a Hawaiian monk seal as well as harassing a sea turtle on Kauai, and then posting the videos to Instagram,” the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.

“Many monk seals in Hawaii are used to crowded beaches and hordes of fans surrounding them, but habituation to human presence can harm seals,” the researchers said.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.