Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Gibraltar Apes came from North Africa says Scientific Report

Gibraltar's Barbary Macaque's origins confirmed as being in North AfricaGibraltar’s famous Rock Apes are all immigrants according to genetic analysis by Swiss scientists.

The research has shown the Barbary macaques are not an indigenous species but descend from Moroccan and Algerian monkeys that were brought to Europe.

For years scientists speculated that the Gibraltar monkeys were an isolated colony, the last representatives of their kind on the continent but GONHS in Gibraltar were aware of the likely source of monkeys as both Morocco and Algeria, as was in fact presented in the Calpe 2003 Conference on the Barbary Macaque organised by GONHS and the Gibraltar Government.

Fuller details had to await publication in the Journal as protocol dictates, said Dr John Cortes yesterday.

Dr Cortes confirmed that the results published by Lara Modolo in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are the fruit of years of research in Gibraltar by a number of researchers from Zurich University in collaboration with GONHS (The Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society) and the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic. Blood samples were facilitated and sent to Zurich by arrangement through GONHS with Gibraltar Customs and analysed in the laboratories there.

“We are sure now that Gibraltar’s macaques are not the remnant of an earlier European population,” said Zurich University anthropologist Lara Modolo.

Results show the British monkeys are clearly related to North African populations.
Macaques - or their ancestors - are believed to have lived in some parts of Europe during the last Ice Age. Some authors have even claimed that they could still be found in Spain in the 1800s.

Working with researchers from Constance University in Germany and Chicago’s Field Museum, Modolo analysed the DNA makeup from 30 per cent of the monkeys and compared it with macaque populations in North Africa.

“We were able to determine the source populations in Morocco and Algeria because they have very distinct genetic markers,” she said. “These populations were clearly isolated a long time ago from each other.”

When the macaques were introduced to Gibraltar is still open to debate. According to Modolo, they arrived sometime in the past 2,000 years but it is difficult to be more precise.

The most likely reason given is that the Moors brought them to Spain as pets when they occupied the southern Iberian peninsula from 711 onwards.

“If we refer to historical records they most probably arrived before the British took over, somewhere between 1,400 and 700 years ago,” added Modolo.

During the Second World War macaque numbers in Gibraltar are believed to have dropped to as low as three because of disease. The then British prime minister, Winston Churchill, demanded stocks be replenished at all costs. This was done in order to comply with a local belief that if the monkeys died off, Britain would lose its grasp on the strategic Rock.

But today’s colony of macaques is not entirely descended from these animals imported from North Africa between 1942 and 1946.

Modolo admits that a few original monkeys survived the war, but their exact number remains shrouded in mystery. The Rock is peppered with caves where animals have no trouble hiding.

“We only know of reports of macaques being imported from Morocco during and after the war,” the anthropologist told. “But we have shown that the current population has ties to Algerian monkeys so we know they are the descendants of a much older group.”

“It is most likely, as a result of our joint work, that the origin of the ‘apes’ has been established, but there are always questions. When exactly were they brought here? And, as only a sample, large though it was, was tested, are there any other different genes still ‘lurking’ in our population. We seem to know with more certainty than ever - but the file is not yet closed,” said Dr Cortes.

The number of Barbary macaques living in Gibraltar today totals around 240, in five groups ranging between 37 and 68 animals according to a 2002 census. They are the last wild primates in Europe.

But if the Rock Ape colony gets too big, Gibraltar’s local government allows culling to avoid pressure on a limited habitat. Population control is considered “an essential part of effective management of the [...] colony” says GONHS.

Once a common sight in North Africa, only isolated groups of monkeys survive today in Morocco and Algeria. Facing stiff competition from humans for living space, their numbers have dropped by half over the past 20 years to reach just 10,000.

The Barbary macaque is listed as a vulnerable species in the World Conservation Union’s Red List.

Related Links:

BBC - Science & Nature - Wildfacts - Barbary ape, Barbary macaque

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