Thrashed by Hurricane Maria, Monkey Island Tries to Rebuild, Bolstered by Support From Scientific Community

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and other international universities are working to save an invaluable scientific resource badly damaged during Hurricane Maria: a population of rhesus macaques living on a remote island, as well as the staff and facilities that support them.

More than 1,000 free-ranging monkeys live on Cayo Santiago, a small Puerto Rican island. These animals have provided researchers a unique field site since the 1930s, the longest-running primate site in the world. It’s work that cannot be done almost anywhere else.

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

On Sept. 20, Cayo Santiago received a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, then a Category 4 storm that devastated Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean.

“This fragile population somehow survived this awful storm, but we need to act quickly to save them and the important scientific possibilities they represent,” said Michael Platt, the James S. Riepe University Professor at Penn with appointments in psychology, neuroscience and marketing in the School of Arts & Sciences, Perelman School of Medicine and Wharton School. “Unless we immediately rebuild the infrastructure on the island, as well as the lives of the people who support it, this important resource may disappear.”

International researchers are now working hard to do just that. The team includes scholars from Penn, New York University, Yale University, the University of Buffalo, the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, the University of Michigan, the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Washington from fields such as biological anthropology, psychology and neuroscience.

After Hurricane Maria hit, the staff of Cayo Santiago went to heroic lengths to reach the island and assess the monkey groups, even surveying damage by helicopter.

“All the different social groups on the island have been accounted for,” said James Higham of NYU, “which means that most of these resilient monkeys weathered this powerful storm.”

​​​​​​​But the situation is still precarious. 

“Vegetation on the island has been decimated, and the infrastructure providing life-sustaining fresh water has been destroyed,” said Noah Snyder-Mackler of the University of Washington.

The scientists said they hope this newly organized relief effort can address these pressing problems.

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 in general. Many of the staff who live near the site have lost everything, and limited phone service has left others still unaccounted for.   

Two GoFundMe sites have been set up in conjunction with this relief effort: Cayo Santiago Monkeys: Maria Relief and Relief for Cayo Santiago Employees.

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