About half a mile off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, there’s a small island that’s home to approximately 1,500 rhesus monkeys and exactly zero humans. These monkeys have weathered a number of hurricanes since first being introduced generations ago from India, as part of a research project in 1938. But according to researchers familiar with the longstanding and treasured outpost, Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico in late September, might be their biggest survival test yet.
Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, so the monkeys and the support staff, who live a 15-minute boat ride away in Punta Santiago, which was also devastated by the storm, have never quite experienced anything like it. Researchers are used to coming to the island of Cayo Santiago, as it is officially known, to study the primates. Now they are traveling there to save them. The research center is the oldest in the world for wild primates, and its location and the animals’ familiarity with humans have made it an ideal place to study primate behavior, anthropology and ecology.
Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University who’s been working on the island for 23 years, told Earther that although she’s seen her fair share of hurricane damage, “the damage after Maria is on a whole different level.”
“All of the infrastructure on the island was destroyed, most of the tree cover was destroyed, even the small isthmus that connects the two parts of the island was destroyed,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Rainwater cisterns used to collect fresh water for the monkeys, feeding stations and research labs were all devastated.
Santos said what happened on the mainland in Punta Santiago is even worse, with staff members having lost everything. She said recovery efforts are focusing on both the animals and the people of Punta Santiago.
“Our hope is that this unique site and cute monkeys might bring attention to the communities around them,” she said. “Monkey Island can’t exist without the amazing staff and community that support it.”
The collaboration appears to be yielding results. The iconic “SOS” photos taken by Cayo Santiago investigators after the storm went viral and helped bring attention to the crisis early on. Two GoFundMe sites have been set up for relief efforts: one for the staff and local community and the other for the monkeys. The sites have already raised over $45,000 and almost $10,000, respectively.
The biggest challenges to recovery for the monkeys, the staff, and the Cayo Santiago Field Station are familiar to those throughout the rest of Puerto Rico—a lack of electricity and few options for transporting materials. Many staff members are in desperate need of food and water, according to Santos.
“Most of the people who work at Cayo are now eating only one small meal a day to conserve food,” she said. “The US government needs to act now to help. They need to find ways to get food and water to these American citizens who are at risk.”
Currently, the staff are working to identify each individual monkey during regular trips to the small island. It appears nearly all of them weathered the storm, but it will take weeks to get a final count.
Much of the value of the island rests in its long history. There’s nearly a century’s worth of continuous data on the population, and since the monkeys grew up with regular human visitation, they can be easily observed.
Alexandra Rosati, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who’s worked on the island for over 15 years, told Earther some of the first knowledge about the natural behavior of other primates comes from the site.
“The depth of knowledge we have about each individual animal’s life means we can ask questions about how early life experience, genetics, and patterns of aging affect behavior and cognition—studies that are close to impossible to do in humans because tracking every aspect of a person’s life is very challenging,” she said.
Rosati also emphasized the heavily damaged field station’s important role in the early work of many budding psychologists and biologists, saying “undergraduate and PhD students who conduct their first independent research at this site and go on to careers in science and other fields.”
She said one of her NYU-based colleagues is en route to Puerto Rico today to deliver supplies for the monkeys, including tools to rebuild some of the infrastructure, satellite phones so staff can communicate, solar-powered USB chargers, solar flashlights, crank radios, water filtration systems, and formula and powdered milk for staff and their children. Later this week, a shipping container with more supplies and construction materials is scheduled to ship.
“The large-scale challenges facing Monkey Island are the same challenges faced by Puerto Rico as a whole,” said Rosati. “Recovery efforts getting these life-saving supplies to Puerto Rico are necessary for both human and nonhuman lives.”