Time running out for 'Monkey Island' devastated by Hurricane Maria

Sarah Knapton

A monkey sanctuary used by scientists for decades to conduct groundbreaking evolutionary research has been completely devastated by Hurricane Maria.

In the 1938 more than 400 rhesus macaques were released on to Cayo Santiago, located off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, by American primatologist Clarence Ray Carpenter.

For nearly 80 years, the research facility, dubbed ‘Monkey Island’ has been used by scores of institutions to carry out studies in primate behaviour, cognition and evolution and is the longest running field site in the world.

However at the end of September, Hurricane Maria struck the island, sending the startled monkeys running for cover, ripping apart the mainland research station and cutting off fresh water supplies and electricity.

A monkey rests on a tree branch on Cayo Santiago Credit: Ramon Espinosa AP

Although most of the 1,000-strong colony is thought to have survived, scientists now have the painstaking task of scouring the island to track down each individual, a process expected to take weeks.

The extreme winds also ripped up acres of natural vegetation which the monkeys eat, leaving them completely reliant on being fed by research staff, many of whom have now been evacuated because their homes were destroyed.

“Cayo Santiago was one of the first places the storm and its 150mph winds made landfall,” said Dr Lauren Brent, lecturer at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour which has been working with seven other institutions to help restore the facility.

“Since the island is only 38 hectares, there wouldn’t have been many places for the animals to take refuge.”

A monkey drinks from a puddle on Cayo Santiago Credit: Ramon Espinosa AP

The monkeys roam free on the natural tropical island, but also are so used 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 behaviours.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, British evolutionary biologist Dr James Higham, of New York University, used his own credit card to charter a helicopter to fly over the island and assess the damage.

A photograph taken from the air showing a large chalk message which read ‘S.O.S. Necesitamos Agua/Comida (We need water and food) went viral after it was Tweeted out by Dr Higham, and then retweeted by Kim Kardashian.

“The assistant director of field station was able to take that flight and take aerial footage and she was able to see hundreds of monkeys,” said Dr Higham.

“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.

“You look at the devastation and think how can the monkeys survive but they are creative and very resilient. They hide, they huddle and find places, they know the terrain and habitat very well.”

Workers repair research facilities destroyed by Hurricane Maria Credit: Ramon Espinosa AP

Since Dr Higham’s tweet, aid has steadily been pouring into the island but scientists say the situation for the monkeys is still very precarious.

“Although the animals miraculously braved the storm, the vegetation on the island has been decimated, and the infrastructure providing life-sustaining freshwater has been destroyed,” said Dr Noah Snyder-Mackler, of the University of Washington.

Dr Michael Platt, of the University of Pennsylvania, said: “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.

“This fragile population somehow weathered this awful storm, but we need to act quickly to save them and the important scientific possibilities they represent.”

A female monkey holds her baby on Cayo Santiago Credit: Ramon Espinosa AP

The Cayo Santiago Biological Field Station which is located in the mainland town of Punta Santiago also suffered serious structural damage and staff are in desperate need of food, water and supplies.

“The homes of many of the staff were damaged by Maria, including one staff member whose house was completely destroyed,” said Angelina Ruiz-Lambrides, the scientists in charge of the field station.

“Yet they staff got the boat in the water to feed the monkeys a day after the storm and have been working hard ever since.”

Funding campaigns have been set up for both the staff and local community, and the field station.

“We need to act quickly to save these monkeys for future generations of scientists to study,” added Dr Alexandra Rosati, of the University of Michigan.

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