Meddlesome monkeys: Centre students research ongoing dilemma in Barbados

by Matt Overing

Centre College News
Students traveled to Barbados during the summer of 2023 in the course, "Research in Primate Behavior."

A pairing made in paradise led to a transformative educational experience for Centre College students this summer.  

The study abroad course, “Research in Primate Behavior,” brought students to the Caribbean island of Barbados to research green monkeys in their natural habitat. It’s an opportunity for students to dive right into a human/wildlife conflict that has fascinated Professor Melissa Burns-Cusato and emerged as a focus of research throughout her career.

Burns-Cusato, the Stodghill Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience (BNS) at Centre, has taught the course 12 times since 2009. 

“It fits with my area of specialization, my interest is in animal behavioral and neuroethology,” Burns-Cusato said. “All of the locals have a story to tell about the monkeys —hearing their stories got me interested in the problem they experience on the island.”

Local Barbados residents have a love/hate relationship with the monkeys, which Burns-Cusato compares to living with a three-year-old: “they’re so much trouble, but they’re also so cute.” 

The monkeys are tourist magnets, which is a pro for the island’s economy, but the monkeys also wreak havoc on things like gardens and farms — and for reasons other than survival. 

“If there’s a way to make the monkeys more bearable, it would be fantastic to find that,” Burns-Cusato said. “Now we have more of a focus on testing strategies that might help keep the monkeys out of places they’re not supposed to be, without causing harm and that is easy for the farmers, who tend to be low-income.” 

For rising junior June Padilla (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), the course was a perfect match for a BNS major and someone who “loves monkeys.”

“I would love to do that as a career — study monkeys,” Padilla said. “If you told (locals) why you were there, to study the monkeys, they would tell you stories about them. They love them, but they are a big pest.”

Burns-Cusato said she hopes students develop critical-thinking skills during the course — because the problem is one that hasn’t been solved. 

“Any place there is monkeys, you can have this problem,” she said. “Some come into the course very pro-monkey, pro-animal rights perspective. Then they talk to a farmer who has lost 40 percent of their crop to monkeys playing, then you start to understand what they’re losing.” 

Students formed groups and worked on a research project during the course with a presentation at the end. Class of 2025 biology major Arabella Fowler (English, Indiana) studied the spatial preferences of monkeys with her group.

“We looked at males, females and juveniles and looked to see if they had a preference for being high-up or lower in trees, or on the ground,” she said. “Being out in the field was really beneficial, getting that hands-on experience.”

Padilla’s group benefitted from their research station being next to the beach, as they studied coral reefs. Naturally, part of the course took students to the sights of the island: Animal Flower Cave, hiking and snorkeling, as well as a trip to Bridgetown, the capital of the island.  

“We got to snorkel over a shipwreck, which was really cool,” Fowler said. “Animal Flower Cave was a beautiful cave with a species of sea anemone that acts like an animal but looks like a flower. We saw lots of really cool things.” 

While she did miss air conditioning on the island, Padilla said the experience gave perspective to a different way of living.

“These kinds of experiences really open your mind to different parts of the world — how we live is not the only way of life,” she said. “Being able to connect with people there is very eye-opening and special.” 

This article is featured as part of the Centre Summer Adventure series, highlighting experiential learning through study abroad and away opportunities across the globe.