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The Hawaii state animal is a fascinating creature that has special meaning for the Aloha State. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the official state land mammal of Hawaii is the Hawaiian monk seal.

In this comprehensive guide, we will uncover why the Hawaiian monk seal was chosen and what makes this animal so iconic. We’ll explore the seal’s history in Hawaii, its endangered conservation status, physical characteristics, habitat and behaviors, cultural significance, and cemented status as an endemic state symbol.

Background and History of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Native Endemic Species

The Hawaiian monk seal, known scientifically as Neomonachus schauinslandi, is a critically endangered species of earless seal endemic to the Hawaiian Islands (NOAA, 2023). This means it only breeds in Hawaii and nowhere else globally.

Hawaiian monk seals likely descended from the Caribbean monk seal, adapting over time to the subtropical habitat of the Hawaiian archipelago after a small founder group arrived around 15 million years ago (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2023).

Discovery and Naming

The Hawaiian monk seal was first described by German naturalist Hugo Hermann Schauinsland in 1899 after discovering the seals during a comprehensive survey of the Hawaiian Islands (NOAA, 2023). He named the newly discovered species Monachus schauinslandi in 1900.

In 1981, after further research into monk seal taxonomy, the species was reclassified under the genus Neomonachus, giving it the current binomial name Neomonachus schauinslandi (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2023).

Population Decline and Protective Measures

When first discovered in the late 1800s, approximately 2,000 Hawaiian monk seals were estimated to inhabit the islands. But after years of hunting by early Polynesian settlers, habitat degradation, human disturbance, and fishery interactions like entanglements, the population saw a dramatic decline to only around 1,400 seals by the 1950s (NOAA, 2023).

Protective measures were then implemented, designating the Hawaiian monk seal as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1976. The current population estimate stands at approximately 1,400 seals today (NOAA, 2023), but the species remains under threat with ongoing conservation efforts aiming to stabilize and recover numbers.

Physical Description and Behaviors

Size and Appearance

The Hawai╩╗i state animal, the Nene goose, is a medium-sized goose with an average height of 25 inches and weight between 4-6 pounds. Both male and female Nenes have a black head and yellow cheeks with white undersides.

Their most distinctive feature is the black and yellow-striped feet and black-tipped wings which span up to 5 feet during flight. The adorable Nene goslings are covered in soft, fluffy down and have striped feet like the adults.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Nenes are herbivores that graze on various native Hawaiian plants like grass, sedges, ferns, fruits, seeds, and even flowers. They use their strong black beaks to rip and chew through vegetation. An interesting fact is that Nenes play an important role in dispersing plant seeds across habitats.

Research shows that up to 97 different plant species have been found in Nene droppings! They spend 4-8 hours per day grazing and foraging for food. Nenes can drink brackish or fresh water, allowing them to inhabit coastal areas. They are very social and travel in pairs or small flocks while feeding.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

The breeding season for Nene geese occurs between October and March. They create simple ground nests lined with soft down feathers near wooded areas for protection. The female Nene lays on average of 3-5 eggs which hatch after 29-32 days.

The goslings are able to swim and eat vegetation soon after hatching while both parents share parenting duties. Sadly the early gosling mortality rate is over 50% due to predators and accidents. If they survive the first year, Nenes can live for up to 25 years!

The longest recorded lifespan was a Nene goose that lived to be 41 years old.

Habitat and Range

Preferred Marine Environments

The Hawaiian monk seal prefers warm subtropical waters and is usually found in shallow, coastal habitats. Some of their favorite hangouts include coral reefs, sandy beaches, and volcanic rock shores. These areas provide monk seals with shelter to rest, give birth, and nurse their pups.

The clear, calm waters also make it easier for the seals to spot and capture prey like fish, octopus, and lobster.

Breeding Locations

The main Hawaiian monk seal breeding sites are the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote island chain stretching over 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii’s main islands. Over 90% of all monk seal births occur in just six locations: Midway Atoll, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, French Frigate Shoals, and Kure Atoll.

These islands offer several advantages for breeding seals:

  • Isolation from human disturbance
  • Abundant prey in surrounding waters
  • Wide, sandy beaches where females can give birth and nurse their pups

Current Geographic Distribution

The Hawaiian monk seal currently resides solely in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Its range extends across the entire 1,931-mile stretch of the island chain from the Main Hawaiian Islands in the southeast to Kure Atoll in the northwest.

Main Hawaiian Islands About 150 seals (only 10% of total population)
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands About 1,100 seals (90% of total population)

But the seals’ abundance and distribution across this vast range has changed dramatically over time. Hunting and habitat loss decimated the once-thriving colonies in the main islands during the 19th century.

Today, the largest concentrations left are found at French Frigate Shoals and Laysan Island in the remote northwest.

You can learn more background about the seals’ habitat preferences and distribution at the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian monk seal site.

Cultural Significance and Official State Designation

Importance to Native Hawaiians

The Hawaiian monk seal, known as ‘Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua in the Hawaiian language, has always been an important cultural symbol for native Hawaiians. According to traditional legends, a monk seal led the first Polynesian voyagers to the Hawaiian islands over 2,000 years ago.

Monk seals were also honored as guardians (╩╗aumakua) and friends who shared the bounties of the ocean.

Ancient Hawaiians developed cultural protocols and regulations to protect the docile marine mammal, prohibiting the harming or killing of seals which frequented shorelines. Generations of native Hawaiians have upheld these beliefs and practices, regarding the Hawaiian monk seal as a revered ancestor and protector.

Conservation Symbol

Today, the endemic Hawaiian monk seal serves as an important state conservation symbol. Its threatened status under the Endangered Species Act signifies the fragility of island ecosystems in Hawaii. Saving this iconic mammal has become a rallying cause for protecting marine biodiversity and raising ecological awareness in the islands.

State wildlife agencies and conservation groups like the Marine Mammal Center have launched programs to monitor seal populations, rehabilitate injured seals, and educate visitors to be respectful and help preserve fragile coastal habitats.

Process of Becoming State Land Mammal

In 2006, elementary school students concerned about the plight of Hawaiian monk seals petitioned the state legislature to designate them as an official state symbol. The legislature adopted the resolution in the same year.

This made Hawaii the first state to adopt a marine mammal as its state land mammal.

The Hawaiian monk seal joined existing state symbols like the Hawaiian goose (state bird), gold and black Hawaiian reef triggerfish (state fish), hibiscus (state flower), and the Kukui tree (state tree).

These endemic state symbols recognize the islands’ precious native species and unique island ecosystems deserving of conservation and pride.


The Hawaiian monk seal has great cultural significance in Hawaii and its endearing appearance and behaviors have captured the hearts of many. Unfortunately, as a critically endangered species found only in Hawaii, extra measures are required to ensure the survival and future prosperity of these special seals in their native habitats.

We can help the Hawaiian monk seal by respecting protected areas and supporting ongoing conservation efforts.

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