Published October 23, 2017
Cayo Santiago is a tiny, curiously shaped island not far from Puerto Rico’s eastern shore. A bit larger than half of a square mile, it might go unnoticed, if it’s included at all, on less detailed maps of the Caribbean.
But Carol Berman, a professor in UB’s Department of Anthropology and an expert in primate social behavior, knows the island well. She’s been doing research there since 1974 and is among the scientists calling attention to Cayo Santiago, home to a unique free-ranging population of rhesus monkeys and the researchers charged with their care, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Maria’s destruction has threatened the stability of the oldest, continuously running research site of its kind on what is informally known as “Monkey Island,” and has left researchers living on the mainland and their support staff among the 3.5 million inhabitants to suffer loses as a result of the storm.
Since the late 1930s, Monkey Island has been one of the most productive and important sites for research on the behavior and social structure of nonhumans, producing findings that are central to many theories about human social behavior and evolution, Berman says.
The monkeys are not quite wild or captive, since they’re free-ranging, but with researchers systematically supplying food and water to the Rhesus population. The unique status of the island and how it straddles captivity and wilderness provides many advantages over studying either captive groups or wild groups.
Berman says the Cayo Santiago monkeys organize themselves in ways typical of those in the wild. These groups are also larger than what researchers have access to in captivity and provide their studies with larger sample sizes.
Rhesus monkeys are indigenous to Southeast Asia. The Cayo Santiago population are the descendants of about 400 monkeys shipped to the island in 1938. With their home on U.S. territory, research permissions are expedited for scientists from all over the world and the process of transporting equipment and biological supplies is greatly simplified.
“But perhaps the most important advantage is that there is a depth of knowledge about every individual monkey that has lived on the island,” Berman says. “A careful census has gone on since 1958, allowing detailed studies of demographic processes and of the factors that lead to long life and success in producing and rearing progeny. Thus, it has been the focus of many genetic and health-based studies that have implications for human health and welfare.”
Because of the storm, the staff have been unable to complete a recent full census. All post-Maria efforts on the island have gone to ensuring the monkeys have enough food.
“We are hopeful that the monkeys have done fairly well,” says Berman. “All the social groups have been seen and they have survived past hurricanes remarkably well. All the adults have been accounted for, but we are still unsure about the juveniles. The trails that observers followed are washed out or covered with debris, making it very difficult to follow and identify the juveniles.”
But the island’s infrastructure was not so durable. The storm damaged the dock, and destroyed a lab building, storage buildings and, most critically, the rainwater collection and distribution systems.
Few trees remain, so the monkeys have no shade and little greenery to support their diet. There are also concerns that any fresh water puddles that accumulated from the storm will evaporate quickly with the pending arrival of the island’s dry season.
“Clearly this storm has caused devastating losses for millions of Puerto Rican residents, and I in no way wish to diminish their situation or discourage people from contributing to the larger human population. However, I am hoping to aim this message specifically to the university community that holds a special respect for long-term research efforts that have yielded so much of what we know about our nonhuman primate cousins. These efforts have not only scientific value, but they also enrich our understanding of human origins and what it means to be human.”
Now, three weeks into a GoFundMe.com campaign, Berman says the relief effort for Cayo Santiago employees is less than $8,000 from its $65,000 goal.
“The highest priorities are to help the staff get back on their feet and to restore the rainwater collection and distribution system on the island,” she says. “Some of the staff have lost homes, cars and most of their possessions, yet they are going to great lengths to aid the monkeys. They truly deserve our praise.”
Berman says relief efforts are also calling for help from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other grant and governmental agencies, but these all involve processes that take much longer than GoFundMe.com, which when successful can provide immediate aid for critical needs.
Anyone interested in donating can contact Berman by email.