Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

From the Field: Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico

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Erica Dunayer was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle. You may read a brief description of her project by clicking here. Here she has provided a post-hurricane update from Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. 

Erica Dunayer collecting data on Cayo. You can see how lush and green vegetation is and how rich the sea is behind it all prior to Maria. Photo Credit: Stephanie Munro

I’ve spent the last year using my funds from The Leakey Foundation to support my dissertation research on the famed “Monkey Island” located on Cayo Santiago—a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. My days were spent observing the intricate social interactions of 50 rhesus macaques. (The island is home to more than 1000 monkeys.) But my afternoons were spent getting to know the people living in the Punta Santiago community, which is the small fishing village that has housed the researchers and the Cayo Santiago staff for almost 80 years.

With my Leakey Foundation funds, I am investigating how mothers negotiate access of their infants to seemingly ardent, though not necessarily trustworthy, admirers. In rhesus, non-mothers show strong attractions to touch, handle, embrace, and groom infants that are not their own, and often gain favor with mothers by first grooming them. Importantly, previous research has shown that the number of available infants dictates the duration of grooming provided to mothers, resulting in a supply and demand relationship. It is our hope that studying the mechanisms constraining these exchanges in rhesus may help elucidate our understanding of the complex economic exchanges seen in humans.

Cayo Santiago after Maria. Photo credit: Angelina Ruiz Lambides

September proved to be a crucial month for my project. September is the peak of the birth season on Cayo, so this should have been the height of my data collection. Unfortunately on September 20 Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, with Cayo Santiago receiving a direct hit from the Category 4 storm. Luckily, a substantial amount of infant handling data for the project were already collected, and we are optimistic that we can still address the questions outlined in the original proposal.

The good news is that monkeys in all social groups on Cayo Santiago survived. However, the resilient monkeys, including the new mothers and their babies, now face further problems. The infrastructure providing fresh water on Cayo Santiago was destroyed with the vegetation providing food and shade to the monkeys completely decimated.

Even though they have already lost so much (including their own houses in some of these cases), the Cayo staff have already returned to Cayo to start rebuilding and helping the monkeys!! This picture was taken on Cayo post Maria. Photo credit:
Angelina Luiz Rambides

The situation for the people of Punta Santiago is just as dire. Prior to the storm, there was a mandatory evacuation for the community. With no place to go, Cayo Santiago staff members living outside of Punta Santiago opened their homes to the displaced researchers. Even outside of Punta Santiago, the situation was harrowing. My research team and I woke around 5 AM with water already up to our calves. Apparently our new location couldn’t provide a complete respite from the storm. After a portion of our roof collapsed, we spent the next several hours funneling water out of the house until it became “safe” enough to try to temporarily mend the roof. I was fortunate enough to fare better than most, especially the members of our beloved Punta Santiago. Most of the community have lost their homes and all of their personal belongings, and like the monkeys on Cayo Santiago, are in desperate need of access to clean drinking water and food.

Cayo Santiago staff arrive to the island post Maria, with several monkeys alive and waiting for them! Photo credit: Bonn Aure

The damage to both Cayo Santiago and Punta Santiago was catastrophic; however, I remain optimistic. My time in Punta Santiago has taught me that the people of Puerto Rico are some of the kindest, hardest working, and most generous people I will ever know. Although their community may be temporarily broken, their resilient spirit, buttressed by relief efforts organized by current Cayo Santiago researchers from various institutions (many who are past and present Leakey Foundation grantees), will no doubt allow for the rebuilding of both the research facility and the community at large.

Relief efforts for the Punta Santiago community and the Cayo Santiago research station are currently being organized by the scientists at the University at Buffalo, University of Exeter, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Yale University, University of Washington, the University of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Primate Research Center (in addition to many others).

To donate to the members of the Cayo Santiago staff and Punta Santiago community, click here. (

To donate to help the monkeys and restore the biological field station of Cayo Santiago, click here. (

The effort to rebuild Cayo infrastructure is underway! Photo credit: Angelina Luiz Rambides

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