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The Mediterranean monk seal was well known to the people of the Mediterranean Basin since ancient times. Ancient Greeks revered the seals and believed they were under the protection of the gods Poseidon and Apollo because of their great love for the sea and the sun. Numerous literary references to the species from the ancient Greek and Roman period show that monk seals lived in large numbers along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. References to the Mediterranean monk seal exist in the texts of Homer, Aristophanes and Plutarch, and in the writings of the Roman poets Ovidius and Virgil. Aristotle, the godfather of Zoology, was the first one to scientifically describe the species in his groundbreaking work “History of animals”.

The presence and role of the Mediterranean monk seal in ancient human culture have also been documented in other ways. Monk seals are depicted on coins from the 6th century B.C. ancient town of Phocaea (present day Asia Minor), which was named after the species. An ancient vase from 520 - 510 B.C. shows a mythical hero fighting a sea monster in the presence of a Mediterranean monk seal. One of the most impressive pieces of evidence was found on the island of Rhodes, where in 1999, an archaeological excavation discovered a burial site where members of a wealthy family were ceremoniously buried with a Mediterranean monk seal.

The large colonies of monk seals, which were so often described in antiquity, were systematically wiped out during the Roman times for their meet, skin and oil. Occasionally, monk seals were even used to entertain crowds in the Roman arenas.

Mediterranean monk seals received their name in 1779 from the German naturalist Johann Hermann, who described the species from a specimen on exhibit at the Museum of Strasbourg. Hermann named the new species Phoca monachus from the Greek word μοναχός (i.e. monk), due to the resemblance of the monk seal’s skin to the cloak of a Catholic monk. The scientific name was updated in later years to Monachus monachus as research showed monk seals are part of a unique taxonomic Genus of sub-tropical seals.

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