Monkey island

The research station was destroyed by Hurricane Maria

Monkey island research station battered by Hurricane Maria

Researchers from the University of Exeter and seven other institutions are working to restore a Puerto Rican research station and its nearby community following the damage caused last week by Hurricane Maria.

Cayo Santiago, affectionately known as Monkey Island, is located off the southeast coast of mainland Puerto Rico and is home to more than 1,000 rhesus monkeys.

The island was directly in the path of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean on September 20.

The research station was destroyed, and the researchers are now working to gather support for the tiny island and the people living nearby.

“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.

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

This island is one of the longest-running field sites for the study of mammalian behaviour, psychology and biology in the world.

Rachel Sweetman, a former Masters student at the University of Exeter, said: “Cayo Santiago was the ideal place to do my dissertation research. I can’t imagine this unique resource for science and education disappearing.”

After Hurricane Maria hit, staff who work on Cayo Santiago went to great 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,” said James Higham, of New York University.

But the situation for the monkeys on the island is currently very precarious.

“We need to act quickly to save these monkeys for future generations of scientists to study,” said Alexandra Rosati, of 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,” said Noah Snyder-Mackler, of the University of Washington.

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

And 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 neighbouring 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 means others are still not accounted for.   

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

A site of scientific research since the 1930s, Monkey Island is home to research that cannot be done almost anywhere else.

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.

The scientific team now working to restore the research station and help local people includes scholars from New York University, University of Buffalo, University of Exeter, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Puerto Rico, University of Washington and Yale University.

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

Date: 27 September 2017

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