Researchers Work to Save “Monkey Island” Damaged by Hurricane Maria


Researchers from a multi-national group universities are working together to save a scientific resource that was badly damaged in Hurricane Maria—a population of rhesus monkeys living on a remote island off the coast of Puerto Rico—and the staff and facilities that support them.

Researchers Work to Save “Monkey Island” Damaged by Hurricane Maria
Researchers from a multi-national group universities are working together to save a scientific resource that was badly damaged in Hurricane Maria—a population of rhesus monkeys living on a remote island off the coast of Puerto Rico—and the staff and facilities that support them. Image courtesy of Constance Dubuc, NYU.

Researchers from a multi-national group universities are working together to save a scientific resource that was badly damaged in Hurricane Maria—a population of rhesus monkeys living on a remote island off the coast of Puerto Rico—and the staff and facilities that support them.

“Cayo Santiago is a small island off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico that’s home to over 1000 free-ranging monkeys,” says Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, who has worked at the site for more than two decades. “The monkeys have been subjects in scientific research since the 1930s, which makes this site the longest running primate field site in the world.”

After Hurricane Maria hit, the staff of Cayo Santiago, also known as “Monkey Island,” went to notable lengths to reach the island and assess the monkey groups, even surveying the damage by helicopter.

“The good news is that we know that all the different social groups on the island have been accounted for, which means that most of these resilient monkeys weathered this powerful storm,” reports James Higham, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Anthropology.

This site and the staff that support it have spearheaded research that cannot be done almost anywhere else, scientists say.

The monkeys roam free on the natural tropical island, but also are so habituated to humans that they can be involved in up-close and personal research--allowing researchers unprecedented access into their daily lives. This microcosm of monkey society has shed light onto questions as diverse as how they think, choose friends, choose mates, and the genetic underpinnings of their complex social behaviors.

But this resource wound up directly in the path of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean.

“Cayo Santiago is off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico and was one of the first places the eye of the storm and its 150MPH winds made landfall,” says Lauren Brent, assistant professor at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.

The team of researchers are now working hard to generate support for this tiny island and the human communities around it. The team includes scholars from NYU, University of Buffalo, University of Exeter, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Puerto Rico, University of Washington, and Yale University, as well as researchers from a number of different fields—biological anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience.

However, the researchers warn that the monkeys on the island face very precarious circumstances.

“We need to act quickly to save these monkeys for future generations of scientists to study,” says Alexandra Rosati, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

“Although the animals miraculously braved the storm, the vegetation on the island has been decimated, and the infrastructure providing life-sustaining fresh water has been destroyed,” adds Noah Snyder-Mackler, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

The scientists are therefore organizing a relief effort to address these pressing problems.

They also note that the people living in surrounding communities are suffering even more.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico--which currently has limited electricity, fuel, food, and water—has had a dire impact on the neighboring community of Punta Santiago and the region of Humacao.

“This fragile population somehow weathered this awful storm, but we need to act quickly to save them and the important scientific possibilities they represent,” urges Michael Platt, James S. Riepe University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Unless we immediately rebuild the infrastructure on the island as well as the lives of the people that support it, this important resource may disappear.”

 

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