Monkeying about in the Caribbean

Posted on March 29, 2011


A dear friend and night shift colleague, Merlin (he is a wizard when it comes to anything to do with computers) has just come back from the Caribbean island of Barbados after proposing to his long-term girlfriend (aaaah!!). It seems the white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters painted the perfect setting he needed for a holiday with a bit of chutzpah, that and high value rings at low-cost prices he tells me (note-to-self Northerner!!).

Merlin says while he was there he noticed a large number of green monkeys on the island. Green monkeys are a subspecies (Chlorocebus aethiops sabaeus) of Old World Monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops) originally from Africa. These monkeys are considered to be the most widespread of all African monkeys. Historians believe they arrived on the Caribbean islands of Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis on slave ships. Their fur is usually brownish-grey with flecks of yellow or olive colouring. Their main diet is fruit, seeds, leaves and animal prey but they do take handouts from tourists and regularly raid crops and anything else they can get their mitts on.

Green monkey

According to Barbados’ government website (Barbados Integrated Government – BIG),  green monkeys and giant African snails are seen as “invasive alien species”. These creatures are not indigenous to the island and so they are deemed as the country’s biggest pests.

The website says, “Invasive alien species are plants, animals, pathogens and other organisms that are non-native to an ecosystem, and which may cause economic or environmental harm or adversely affect human health. In particular, they impact adversely upon biodiversity, including decline or elimination of native species – through competition, predation, or transmission of pathogens – and the disruption of local ecosystems and their functions. Once introduced and, or spread outside their natural habitats, invasive alien species have affected native biodiversity in almost every ecosystem on earth and are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.”

It’s estimated green monkeys were brought to Barbados around 350 years ago. Through changes in the environment and evolutionary factors, they have very different characteristics to their cousins in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their numbers have grown over the years and there are several ways the island tries to control them: either through capture to put them into wildlife reserves or to sell them to Barbados Primate Research Center. In the past the government has paid people to cull numbers.

vervet monkey

Over on St Kitts the vervet monkeys are also wrecking havoc and this time it’s in a drunk and disorderly way. It’s thought that when they were brought over to the island from West Africa, they developed a taste for alcohol by eating fermented sugar cane left in the fields. Today they take great pleasure in stealing cocktails from tourists to feed their binge drinking habit. I kid you not!

These particular monkeys have been studied for how alcohol abuse affects primates like us. In the same way that humans have varied taste in particular spirits the monkeys do too. The number of teetotal monkeys also mirrors the same proportion of non-drinkers in human populations, which is bizarre. According to research, most drink in moderation, 12 per cent are steady drinkers and 5 per cent drink till they drop. Researchers say it shows similarities in the way we consume alcohol and suggests that the way we drink is determined by our genes.

I’m half Indo-Caribbean, and I’ve had and continue to have my fair share of hangovers. My grandfather – who is from Trinidad – was a big drinker, but ironically my mother isn’t a booze hound at all – in fact she’s terrible at holding her drink, so I’m not entirely convinced by this notion.

What is clear, is that if we introduce a species into a different environment to their native habitat without proper evaluation, we’re opening a can of worms. I’d be interested to learn if these monkeys eventually develop the same health problems that come with sustained long-term drinking, like liver cirrhosis and obesity.

Merlin asked me is there a moral here? He said, “Maybe it’s don’t mess with the eco-systems unless you have thought out of the box like Mother Nature about what the consequences might be.” I think he’s probably right.

Here’s great short report done by the beeb on the vervet monkeys getting wasted particularly towards the end, they just can’t stand up right after a day’s session.