The identity of Florida’s Skunk Ape, or Bigfoot, has long been debated for a lot of reasons. Now it seems a colony of Asiatic monkeys have set-up residence and their presence could prove problematic not just for Skunk Ape, but all Florida’s native species.
In Silver Springs State Park, along the banks of the Silver River, live a colony of invaders. They’re monkeys called rhesus macaques and the locals seem to enjoy their presence, but authorities from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Service do not. The reason they don’t is they see the impact invasive species have on our native species of animals and plant life every day. Their fear is the rhesus macaques will just add to already existing problems. (Artwork above right by unknown artist of Skunk ape.)
Rhesus macaques are native to the southern and southeastern regions of Asia. Erin Riley, an anthropologist at San Diego State University (SDSU), said, “The local authorities, like the Fish and Wildlife Service, have been less thrilled with the monkeys. Their purview is to maintain a natural environment, and these animals are not natural to this area. They have concerns about the local ecological impact of these animals, and then there are also health issues if people interface and get close to them.”
So in order to try and get a clear picture of how these monkeys are surviving, Riley and then graduate student Tiffany Wade studied the population for a few months in 2013. Here’s what they discovered:
- Only 118 individual monkeys existed in the Silver River area as opposed to the previous estimate of thousands.
- The macaques ate a typical diet for them, that they got from the environment, such as leaves, buds, flowers, shoots, and a dry fruit called samara. They also adapted to eat sedge sprouts that grow in that area.
- 87.5 % of the monkeys diet came from the wild with only 12.5% coming from human handouts.
Interactions between humans and monkeys were mostly from a distance which is a safe alternative for both species.
Riley added, “From the park’s perspective, they know that provisioning [humans feeding animals] occurs, and their sense is that it’s because of this provisioning that this population persists. What out data show is that provisioning actually doesn’t occur that often anymore, and as a result the monkeys have learned to rely primarily on local food.”
The scientists made some recommendations to the park that mostly involved educating the public about the monkeys and how to interact with them. They also recommended the park increase patrols along the river to discourage people from getting too close to the monkeys and vice versa.
As of 3/2013, these rhesus macaque monkeys have not transmitted any disease nor even suffered a rabies infestation. The article by Virginia’s Department of Health said most macaques in our country have been bred here and have never been exposed to microorganisms that their old world cousins would have been.
That said, in the article by the US National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), Doctors JM Conly and BL Johnston report, “The macaque species, principally the rhesus macaque, which is one of the most frequently encountered of the Old World monkeys, are the primates most often associated with temples [in Asia] because they can thrive in human-altered environments. Many infectious agents, predominantly viruses, are carried by macaques and with the increasing interactions between humans and macaques in the commercial setting of tourism, several studies have examined the prevalence of selected enzootic primate-borne viruses in temple-associated or breeding populations of rhesus macaques.”
In other words, humans are catching diseases from the monkeys – not a lot, but often enough. (Photo left of a skunk ape at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee, FL.)
In an article for ScienceDaily.com concerning a study done by Trinity College in Dublin, lead researcher Dr. Natalie Cooper noted that their findings reveal “the rate and intensity of pathogen contacts is a better predictor of pathogen sharing among species than relatedness alone, which may explain why more pathogens of humans are shared with rodents and domestic animals than with wild primates. “
So just because monkeys and apes share a family tree, doesn’t mean they also share pathogens on a regular basis, nor that a more evolved ape is immune to a pathogen just because an older species may be. The key factors are interaction between species and their frequency of interaction – that’s what opens the pathways for transmission of diseases. (Artwork right by Henri Rousseau, “Tropical Landscape American Indian Struggling with Gorilla” 1910. Some believe this is actually a skunk ape.)
As a word of caution, we must not forget that some of our most virulent illnesses have crossed from animals to humans most notably, SARS, HIV, swine flu, Ebola.
In an article by Amy B. Pedersen and T. Jonathan Davies called Cross-Species Pathogen Transmission and Disease Emergence in Primates, they write, “In wild primates, infectious diseases most often are shared between species that are closely related and inhabit the same geographic region. Therefore, humans may be most vulnerable to diseases from the great apes, which include chimpanzees and gorillas, because these species represent our closest relatives. Geographic overlap may provide the opportunity for cross-species transmission, but successful infection and establishment will be determined by the biology of both the host and pathogen.” (Photo top right of two rhesus macaques foraging in Silver River.)
They go on to say, “We find that central Africa and Amazonia are hotspots for cross-species transmission events between wild primates, due to a high diversity of closely related primate species.” In my mind, Florida is a lot like Amazonia – tropical and hot nearly all year long.
So what does all this mean for the Skunk Ape? Well it opens up a nasty box of possibilities. It would be possible for them to catch something that wasn’t previously known in their Florida environment thanks to the introduction of the non-native species of rhesus macaque monkeys. And I guess, vice versa, but I’m less concerned about the macaques.
The environment is right – hot, moist, tropical. While the animals themselves may not interact directly, they could conceivably come in contact with scat left behind that could also carry disease and parasites.
More Invasive Species
I’m a little oversensitive about invasive species in Florida because some very bad things are happening down there. We have multiple invasive fish species moving in, eating up the native fish, and doing quite a bit of harm to the environment. Then we have the deluge of invasive snake species that are doing the same, as well as endangering humans and pets.
Then there are the nutria (photo right), the waterside rodents that are plaguing the shipping industry along the Gulf coast. They were native to South America, but find the climate in Florida just fine.
In addition to these rhesus macaque monkeys, other people have released chimpanzees into the Everglades where they are surviving and spreading. After past catastrophic hurricanes, there were reports that apes such as orangutans escaped zoos and headed to the wilds of the Everglades.
It’s a bad combination and something we should be concerned about. It leaves me wondering if conditions are right for something happening that will make the Skunk Ape sick. Wouldn’t that just be the ending of all endings? We NEVER find it because it’s been sickened and killed by a disease or parasite caught from an invasive species?
Hopefully none of this will come to pass. I have to think that the macaques and the chimpanzees would be suitably afraid of the much larger ape and steer clear of it. But still, it makes me wonder. What can we do about all these invasive species crossing our borders?
What do you think?