On Puerto Rico's 'Monkey Island,' life is hard after Maria

As Hurricane Maria barreled across the Caribbean one month ago, one of the first places to get caught in the eye of the storm was Cayo Santiago, a small island off Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast that is populated only by monkeys.

These aren’t just any monkeys, however. The 1,000 free-ranging rhesus macaques that make their homes on Cayo Santiago — also known as Monkey Island — inhabit the world’s oldest wild primate research center. Since 1938, when their ancestors were shipped there from Asia, scientists from around the globe have flocked to this tiny island in the Caribbean to study primate behavior, physiology and psychology.

Researchers at Cayo Santiago recorded the sounds made by female macaques and concluded they employed baby talk with infants, behavior that was thought to be exclusively human. Others observed females over long periods to detect subtle changes in skin color correlated with sexual receptivity.

Now an international group of researchers are joining forces to save Monkey Island, and its human caretakers, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, whose 150 mile-per-hour winds whipped across Cayo Santiago and the nearby community of Punta Santiago, home to many of the Caribbean Primate Research Center’s employees and researchers. Though all the monkeys have been accounted for, the hurricane ravaged much of their home territory, as well as that of their human neighbors.

“Many adjectives have been used by colleagues to describe the situation there, including ‘catastrophic,’ ‘total destruction,’ ‘devastating’ and ‘apocalyptic,’” said Amanda Accamando, who worked at the CPRC from 2004 to 2007. Along with Lauren Brent, a lecturer with the University of Exeter who has conducted research on Cayo Santiago for more than 10 years, Accamando has helped raise almost $29,000 for CPRC employees and their families.

Accamando told Yahoo News that she and Brent have been in direct contact with Angelina Ruiz-Lambides, the associate director of Cayo Santiago, to identify employees’ most pressing needs and how to best direct their donations. The town of Punta Santiago suffered severe destruction as a result of the hurricane. Located approximately 40 miles from San Juan, it is one of the many communities that became almost unreachable in the wake of the storm.

The homes of at least two CPRC employees have been destroyed or deemed “unlivable,” while three others have experienced extensive flood damage and some roof damage, according to an update posted to Accamando and Brent’s GoFundMe page Wednesday morning.

Amid their own devastation, however, Cayo Santiago staff members still managed to get to Monkey Island to check on the primates and, with the help of colleagues from NYU Primatology, were able to survey the damage to the island from a helicopter.

“They are still assessing the damage to CPRC, but we expect that the damage will be severe if not total,” Accamando told Yahoo News. “The research facilities on Cayo Santiago are destroyed.”

Laurie Santos, a Yale psychologist who has been studying primate psychology on Cayo Santiago since the 1990s, added that while it “is amazingly good news” that all of the island’s precious primates survived the storm, “the bad news is that all of the infrastructure on the island was completely destroyed, as well as much of the vegetation.”

Now that the storm has passed, Accamando explained, “the biggest concern for the animals on the island is similar to that of the people of Puerto Rico — reliable sources of food and fresh water.”

Beyond addressing the immediate and pressing needs of Cayo Santiago’s human neighbors, the main focus for the Primate Center — and similar facilities around the globe — will be to rebuild the island’s natural water collection systems and food resources to keep the monkeys alive.

“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, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania whose research on autism has been conducted in part among the primates of Cayo Santiago. “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.” (Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

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Monkeys move about on Cayo Santiago

Monkeys move about on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. One of the first places Hurricane Maria hit in the U.S. territory Sept. 20 was Monkey Island, a 40-acre outcropping off the east coast that is one of the world’s most important sites for research into how primates think, socialize and evolve. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey walks over the rubble

A monkey walks over the rubble left in the wake of Hurricane Maria on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico, one of the world’s most important sites for research into how primates think, socialize and evolve, on Oct. 4, 2017. The storm destroyed virtually everything on the island, stripping it of vegetation, wrecking the monkeys’ metal drinking troughs and crushing the piers that University of Puerto Rico workers use to bring in bags of monkey chow, brown pellets of processed food that complete the primates’ natural vegetation diet. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A female carries her baby

A female monkey carries her baby on her back on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. Every animal born on the island is tattooed for easy identification, and the skeleton of every one that has died over nine generations has been saved for future reference. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Scientists ferry bags of chow

In this screen grab made from video on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, scientists return to land from Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico. After the passing of Hurricane Maria, the university staff and local employees who keep Monkey Island running are frantically ferrying bags of chow in a tiny skiff, feeding the macaques a survival diet and trying to reassemble the rainwater collectors and drinking troughs that keep the animals alive in the tropical sun. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A female holds her baby

A female monkey holds her baby on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Workers repair research facilities

Workers repair research facilities destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. Mainland scientists are bringing in equipment from chain saws to a portable pier, funded by tens of thousands of dollars raised so far in university departments and online. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey walks along the shore

A monkey walks along the shore of Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. About 100 macaque monkeys here have had their entire genetic makeup sequenced, and hundreds more have had at least some of their DNA analyzed. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey drinks from a puddle

A monkey drinks from a puddle on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. Researchers have been spending much of the year on the island studying everything from the monkeys’ eye movements to the genes and behavior of socially aberrant individuals that may provide insight into the causes of autism. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey eats atop a rock

A monkey eats atop a rock off of Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. The island’s history as a research center dates to 1938, when the man known as the father of American primate science brought a population of Indian rhesus macaques to the United States. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey drinks water

A monkey takes a sip from a pool of water in Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

A monkey rests on a tree branch

A monkey rests on a tree branch on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. Since 1938, the 400 or so macaques have reproduced and expanded their numbers, becoming the world’s most studied free-ranging primate population and something of a living library. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

An iguana sunbathes

An iguana sunbathes as monkeys walk behind on Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island, in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017. In 1938, man known as the father of American primate science, Clarence Ray Carpenter, wanted a place with the perfect mix of isolation and free range, where the monkeys could be studied living much as they do in nature without the difficulties of tracking them through the wild. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)