Field primatologist William O’Hearn IV, son of Head of High School Bill O’Hearn and Chief of Student Advancement Andi O’Hearn, visited Ross Lower School to share with students his unusual job and the path he took to get there. Six days of the week, William travels by boat with other researchers to Puerto Rico’s Cayo Santiago Field Station, also known as Monkey Island. The facility, which is maintained by the Caribbean Primate Research Center and the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Science campus, is the oldest field research site in the world. It was established in 1938, with just 400 monkeys from India, to provide American biologists with the access to monkeys needed to perform biological research. Over the past 40 years, the 35-acre island’s primate population has swelled to more than 1,600 and yielded invaluable information regarding the social behaviors of the species.
Primate research, William says, is incredibly important because of primates’ similarities to humans. Both monkeys’ and humans’ days center primarily around social activities, and observing primates’ interactions with their offspring can lend insight into human parenting styles. In addition, many medical breakthroughs have been the result of research with primates.
“The monkeys [on Cayo Santiago] are used to the presence of humans because we’ve been hanging around there for as long as there’s been an island,” William said. “They know that we don’t represent a threat to them, so they behave totally naturally around us.” William’s role on the island is to study the way social bonds impact monkeys’ responses to one another in times of conflict.
One of the most recent sources of stress for the animals was the occurrence of two Category 5 hurricanes that affected Puerto Rico, with the eyes of the storms located just 10 miles from Cayo Santiago. The island has been decimated, with trees fallen and buildings destroyed. It could be as late as March 2018 before rebuilding on the island is complete, and only then will William be able to resume his work. Yet, despite the hurricanes’ devastation to the island, primatologists have confirmed that the monkeys are well and their social groups are intact.
“The monkeys are incredibly resilient,” William explained. “They can withstand disasters like these better than we can,” hiding or huddling in their family groups against the bases of trees until storms pass. Local scientists, who are also struggling in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, continue to travel to the island and provide food for the animals.
Even before he envisioned a career for himself as a field biologist, William recounted, he was an outdoorsman who participated in Boy Scouts as a child. In college, he studied biology with an emphasis on evolution and ecology. Then he made the decision to travel to South Africa to study wild monkeys. His work on Cayo Santiago came about as the result of an email to a professor he’d never met but whose work he admired.
“I just kept doing things that sounded fun and aligned with my values,” William told the students. “There are a lot of really cool things to do with your time if you’re willing to use courage and pursue your goals to their ends.”
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