UW News

September 26, 2017

Scientists come to the aid of Puerto Rican community, research station

UW News


The Cayo Santiago Research Station in Puerto Rico was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the buildings, feeding corrals, and all but one of the water cisterns necessary to support a free-ranging population of monkeys. A University of Washington faculty member is among the researchers who study there and are mobilizing a relief effort for the community.

The Cayo Santiago Research Station was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the buildings, feeding corrals, and all but one of the water cisterns necessary to support a free-ranging population of monkeys.Angelina Ruiz Lambides


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

The research station known as Monkey Island is located on Cayo Santiago, off the southeast coast of mainland Puerto Rico, and is home to more than 1,000 rhesus monkeys. A site of scientific research since the 1930s, Monkey Island is staffed year-round by dozens of residents of the nearest mainland town, Punta Santiago.

Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, devastated Puerto Rico, which, nearly a week afterward, remains without power and, in most places, water. Its governor said Monday that the U.S. commonwealth is reaching a “humanitarian crisis.”

That’s why scientists say they’re mobilizing a relief effort for residents and to rebuild the freshwater supply for the monkeys on Cayo Santiago. Researchers have established two GoFundMe pages – one for the animals, one for the staff – the latter of which has raised more than $30,000 so far.

“Our primary effort is to help our staff and the community near Cayo, while also trying to ensure that the animals are provisioned,” said Noah Snyder-Mackler, an assistant professor of psychology at the UW. “The local staff have incredible resilience and, while still dealing with the fallout from the storm in their personal lives, have continued to focus on the animals they care for.”

The first priority is to assist the local population with short-term needs, such as water purification systems and solar-powered flashlights, Snyder-Mackler said. Then the relief effort can support longer-term needs for the community and the research station that is supported by the community.

The Monkey Island station is an international collaboration of faculty in the fields of psychology, biological anthropology and neuroscience from the UW, New York University, the University of Buffalo, the University of Exeter, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Puerto Rico and Yale University. The site is considered unique: The monkeys roam free on a natural tropical island, but also are habituated to humans, allowing them access into their daily lives. This microcosm of monkey society has informed studies of how the animals think, how they choose friends and mates, and what genes might underlie their complex social behaviors.

Though staff haven’t been able to take a precise count of the monkey population since the storm, they have observed distinct groups of monkeys, said James Higham, an assistant professor of anthropology at NYU.

“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,” Higham said.

But the situation for the monkeys on the island remains precarious. Much of the vegetation, and all but one of the cisterns that hold rainwater for drinking, were destroyed, Snyder-Mackler said. The immediate effort for the animals is focused on reconstructing the cisterns to take advantage of the next rains.


Snyder-Mackler, who joined the UW earlier this month, has conducted research on the island for four years. Originally scheduled to return in mid-October, Snyder-Mackler studies the monkeys to explore the role of social support in the aging process. His work, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging, examines whether a positive social environment can slow the decline in our immune systems that typically comes with age. “This is one of the only naturally ranging populations of monkeys in which we can objectively measure every aspect of their social environment and how the environment, in turn, affects their biology over the entire lifespan,” he said.

 Access to and on Cayo Santiago is limited. The island is normally reached by boat, but the storm wiped out the dock at Punta Santiago, and some of the damage has been surveyed by helicopter, Snyder-Mackler said. Punta Santiago is about 40 miles from Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, but fuel shortages have made travel difficult.

 “It’s hard to fathom how these small monkeys managed to weather such a powerful storm, but they are not out of the woods yet,” said Snyder-Mackler. “We need to mobilize our resources to rebuild the infrastructure on the island as well as that of the community that supports it. If we don’t, we are at risk of losing one of our most valuable scientific resources.”


Portions of this release were adapted from a joint statement by the researchers.