The incredible Monkey Island in Puerto Rico where humans are the cages

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I was in a small boat passing a small island a mile off the east coast of Puerto Rico when I first noticed the strange inhabitants of the island. The island of Cayo Santiago is entirely inhabited and controlled by more than 2,000 rhesus macaque monkeys. I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the exclusive country of the monkeys, but tourists are not allowed to set foot on the island. Humans are not allowed to stay on the island, and researchers are limited to their time on the island, so my experience was done from a distance.

On this remote ape island, the colony of rhesus macaques began when hundreds of them were delivered in 1938 for research projects, and it has become the ultimate destination for primatologists. With support from Columbia University and the School of Tropical Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, psychologist Dr. Clearance Carpenter created a 38-acre island as the project site.

The monkeys were captured in 12 different districts of India, crated and transported by boat through New York to San Juan. The goal was to establish a breeding colony of disease-free monkeys to provide animals for tropical disease research.

Cayo Santiago has become well known for its research into population management practices and its extensive genetic and demographic databases. Yet that all changed in an instant in 2017 when Hurricane Maria destroyed the island with most of its vegetation lost.

I spoke at length with Angelina Ruiz-Lambides, Scientific Director of the Cayo Santiago Biological Field Station Caribbean Primate Research Center, about the aftermath of the hurricane and how life on the island ultimately turned out to be. prosperous.

“We observed after the hurricane how social networks were altered in the aftermath of an environmental disaster, as part of a collaborative project with the University of Roehampton, UPENN, Univ. Exeter and the UPR, ”she said. “Primates are expected to adapt socially in response to dynamic environments. We found that neighborhood networks were significantly altered after the hurricane, suggesting that individuals became more tolerant in the harsher days after the hurricane due to lack of water and food. I have personally observed similar behavior among PR people. You can observe that people are more tolerant; a good example of this is how well the traffic was handled even though there was no electricity. “

After the hurricane, CSFS scientific staff continued their commitment to serving the local community after the devastation caused by the hurricane. “We had the help of AmeriCorps volunteers and other volunteers affiliated with Project Monkey Island (a group of scientists and other great people from the United States) who joined us in rebuilding the homes of community and remove tons of debris. Cayo Santiago as well as in our reforestation efforts. she continued. “After the devastation caused by the hurricane, the lack of vegetation presents a challenge of food availability and shade from the intense sun for the rhesus macaque colony.”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, research had to be suspended and it took almost two years to finally be able to capture the youngest individuals to take a blood sample and get a tattoo for identification. Researchers are also collecting behaviors over the year, to learn more about the physiology of individuals studying aging or stress; they have to collect these blood samples for genotyping or hormonal analysis.

How the majority of the monkeys survived the hurricane remains a mystery. Angelina thinks they just huddle in small family groups against the base of the trees, or move up and down the hills depending on how the wind or rain hits. “It’s very impressive that they are surviving these two hundred mile force winds. Before the hurricane, we had about sixteen hundred. And now we have over two thousand monkeys on the island.

They have entered into several collaborations with the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Pennsylvania and Exeter, where they have seen how social media has been altered in the wake of an environmental disaster such as Hurricane Maria. Research conducted with California State University, Long Beach and the University of Richmond found that low cost female fertility was like a buffer strategy during hurricane years and women could avoid having a baby the following year in order to focus on their health before they get pregnant.

And I wondered what the daily life of the researchers on the island was like. “Every day we take a boat, from 7 am to 3 pm, where we spend the day collecting behavioral data and collecting poop samples,” she explains. “It’s dangerous. Monkeys are aggressive. They’re used to it, but they’re still wild animals, so we have very little interaction with them and kind of like pretending to be ghosts. We don’t interact. . ”Monkeys also carry herpes B, a version of the virus that can be fatal to humans on contact.

And forget the meals together with the monkeys, humans are the ones in cages on this island. “Years ago we didn’t have cages to eat our food because the monkeys were aggressive and stole our food. Now we have cages where we can take a break and not be disturbed by the monkeys and try to minimize the disturbance, ”she says.

A new law was recently passed by the government and people will no longer be able to enter the island. Visitors can only be approved by the university. For now, it’s all about research and fewer selfies.

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