DANIA BEACH, Fla. — They’re one of the many things that make South Florida so unique – and a bit of a legend among locals. Dozens of vervet monkeys, living less than a mile from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
These monkeys are native to West Africa, not South Florida. Now a group from Florida Atlantic University is out to study and protect them.
Checking-in at the Park 'N Fly near the airport, and you can’t help but check them out.
Colonies of vervet monkeys that have called this area home for over 80 years.
These savanna monkeys are used to living in the woodlands of West Africa.
But they’ve adapted, and thrived in the mangroves of Dania Beach.
"They’ve been here for some time, a lot longer than some of the locals even, so they do deserve some amounts of respect, " said Carly Miles, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University.
Several days a week, she comes out to the mangroves to study the monkeys, along with two other students, and the founder of the Dania Beach Vervet Project, Dr. Missy Williams.
Miles, and fellow graduate student Kathryn Coates, are studying the monkeys' vocalization patterns, and the signals they send to other members of the group.
"Right now, we’re looking at two different kinds of grunts, they do kind of a raspy grunt and kind of a higher pitched grunt and we’re trying to find the context of why they use it," Miles said.
She and Coates are categorizing their entire vocal repertoire, identifying different signals and what they mean.
"So they have a snake alarm call when they see a snapping turtle, so their brain is thinking snake I guess," Coates said.
For Coates, this is her second year researching these primates. Next year, she’s planning to travel to Africa to study the blue and red tailed monkeys in their native habitat.
A trip that she said will be more rewarding for her research – but also more challenging.
"This is just a great opportunity to practice all that," Coates said. "Because, once you’re in Africa you can’t just run over to Walmart and grab what you need, so you want to have all your equipment ready, you want to know how long batteries last, all that stuff."
Next to FLL, South Florida’s vervet monkeys face different threats.
"People. Absolutely people," said Williams, who is also a researcher at FAU.
Two of the biggest threats, she sais are monkeys wandering into the road and getting hit by cars, and thieves looking to steal the monkeys for the black market.
Now, she's working to protect them.
"We’re hoping to put a 600-square foot enclosure if we could pull it off, and then coming out of the enclosure they’re called skytrails is what we like to call them so essentially they’re wired, enclosed walkways," she said.
She’s been studying these monkeys since 2014.
Recently, she was able to secure a lease of three and a half acres of land from Hertz and Park 'N Fly.
"I think it’s important to realize we do share the landscape with wild animals," Williams says. "This is another great example, and they really do provide a good platform to reach out to the community to educate about urban wildlife."
She said the area won’t be changed at all when the enclosure is built, and it will still allow students to continue to research the monkeys for years to come.
An opportunity for students like Sydney Krusch, who is using camera traps to study how often the monkeys hang out in the nearby parking lot.
"One of the more interesting things I’ve found, is how they all have their own rankings and it’s a ranking that’s inherited," Krusch said.
The students hope to have their research published one day.
For Williams, she’s hoping to get her enclosure off the ground, while planes fly just a few hundred feet overhead.
And Williams was part of a team that recently was able to trace the origin of these monkeys.
They discovered they escaped a Dania Beach testing facility in the late 1940s and settled in the nearby mangroves.
As for the Dania Beach Vervet Project, Williams hopes to have the enclosure up by March 2022.
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