Tracking hurricane-induced aging in our genetic primate relatives

Immune systems of rhesus macaques aged two years after Hurricane Maria, suggesting humans could also age more quickly after natural disasters

August 22, 2022
Two macaques huddle on a pile of downed trees on Cayo Santiago, after Hurricane Maria.
Rhesus macaques resting in the remnants of a forest that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria directly hit Cayo Santiago island and Puerto Rico in September, 2017. [Credit: Noah Snyder-Mackler, University of Washington]

Growing up in Houston, Marina Watowich was no stranger to hurricane seasons. This familiarity now drives Watowich’s research in genomics, where she seeks to understand how the environment affects the aging process. She isn’t studying aging in humans — but in a unique population of monkeys in Puerto Rico.

These monkeys live on an isolated island off Puerto Rico and give researchers unique access and insights into monkey genetics. In 2017, Hurricane Maria walloped Puerto Rico and tore down trees on the island where the monkeys live. After the storm, Watowich and colleagues discovered the primate survivors aged rapidly, findings that have implications for human aging after natural disasters. 

Scienceline reporter Hannah Loss speaks with Watowich on her journey to uncover the aftermath of hurricanes on aging.


Cyclone Hurricane Hugo 1989 by solostud | CC BY 3.0

Dj0287 via The Weather Channel 

Tetana Adkins Mace via NBC News

Sloan’s TV Airchive via KHOU TV 

Cayo Santiago monkey sounds courtesy of Noah Snyder-Mackler

About the Author

Hannah Loss

Hannah is a science journalist who enjoys writing about agriculture and the environment, but loves to be stumped (temporarily) by new topics like blackholes and immunotherapy. She previously worked in scientific conference programming, radio podcasting, and documentary film research.


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