You might remember that back in September 2017, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing nearly 3,000 people. It also destroyed 63 % of Cayo Santiago’s vegetation, a tiny little island east of Puerto Rico. There are no humans in Cayo Santiago, but there are a lot of monkeys. Matter of fact, there are some two thousand rhesus macaques that have established colonies on the island. It is a popular site for primatologists conducting research on population management and the network dynamics maintained within these populations.
After all the devastation, monkeys were then left in great distress. The colonies were saved, but from one day to the next, most of its vegetation, which provided the shade essential to their well-being, had simply vanished. Confined to their little island, how were these monkeys supposed to protect themselves from the hot tropical sun? Researchers decided to follow the evolution of their behaviours. They observed the dynamics of two rival colonies by comparing the structure of their social networks before and after the hurricane.
We’ll agree that the idea was quite ingenious: as we are observing an increase in the frequency and severity of events associated to climate change, then knowing what determines a population’s resilience becomes essential. In this way we will be better equipped and more knowledgeable about how to adapt in the case of a catastrophe. It is, in some way, a question that deals with risk management.
Research simply followed its course and the results have just been published in ‘Current Biology’, a scientific publication. At the beginning, researchers imagined that once the hurricane had passed, the monkeys would retreat into their own families and that, should they create new relationships, they would do so with the intention of getting closer to those considered stronger, all in an effort to build key partnerships with them where they could hopefully benefit from these new alliances. However, quite the opposite occurred. Researchers found that there was an overall rise in social and affective relationships, regardless of the others’ particular status. Even with monkeys that, prior to the hurricane, had been mainly solitary, they began to socialise more.
So instead of competing for the remaining resources, the monkeys strengthened their social relationships and started to cooperate. They embarked on a path of sharing and mutual assistance. Certain monkeys that were once previously rivals, stated the article, became increasingly tolerant and fraternal with each other.
Researchers considered this to be an optimised social integration strategy, giving them access to a vast pool of partners with which they could team up to reduce their vulnerability. In other words, and to establish a parallel with a concept that we, in the associative community, hold dearly; these monkeys invested in the social capital of Cayo Santiago by feeding the island’s associative life.
This is a scenario that goes against “might is right”. And this is not the first time animals have been observed having a propensity for cooperation. The zoologist and nature observer Pierre Kropotkine wrote in his book ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’ (1902), that mutual aid and support were so extensively practiced by animals that cooperation should be “a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution”.
As we slowly exit this world pandemic, let’s hope that we will have enough humility to understand that the human tribe, on this small planet somewhere within the cosmos, shares a common community destiny. And it would also be well advised to choose an optimised social integration strategy, by favouring cooperation over competition.