Living through a hurricane accelerated the ageing process for monkeys

In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Caribbean communities, and we now know it had an impact on monkeys too – macaques that lived through the stressful experience have aged at an accelerated rate

Life 7 February 2022

Rhesus macaques

Rhesus macaques resting in the remnants of a forest that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria directly hit Cayo Santiago island and Puerto Rico

Noah Snyder-Mackler

Hurricane Maria increased the biological age of macaques by an average of almost two years.

Maria devastated homes, infrastructure and vegetation in the north-eastern Caribbean in 2017. 

At the time, Noah Snyder-Mackler at Arizona State University and his colleagues were studying 435 macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, 1 kilometre off the southern coast of Puerto Rico. They compared the blood samples of a cross-section of the macaques before and after the hurricane to see whether there were detectable changes in the levels of biomarkers associated with ageing.

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Gene expression – the way that information in DNA is converted into instructions for making proteins and other molecules – changes as people get older and can give an indication of someone’s age. The same is thought to be true of animals including monkeys.

About 4 per cent of the genes expressed by the macaques’ immune cells were found to behave differently after Maria hit. What’s more, markers in the blood showed the monkeys had more inflammation and greater disruption of protein-folding genes. These are changes associated with ageing, says Snyder-Mackler. The researchers say this suggests the macaques’ biological age increased by 2 years, on average. They say this is the equivalent of between seven and eight years for a human.

The destruction of the macaque’s ecosystem by the storm probably caused them acute stress, which aged them more quickly, he says.

Not all of the primates exhibited the changes associated with ageing, however. Previous research shows some expanded their social networks in response to the event, and these animals were less affected, says Snyder-Mackler. He speculates that this is because they had created a “social buffer” that gave them more emotional stability.

“We think that being able to find ways to mitigate your stress response pathway and make your life more predictable helps, because not knowing what’s gonna come next is really what’s most stressful for almost all organisms,” he says. 

The macaques could offer lessons to humans on how to minimise the long-term negative health impacts of extreme adverse events, such as the covid-19 pandemic.

“If we can find ways that these animals have become more resilient, we can then find ways for societies to institute social safety nets and social support that can actually reduce the negative impact of these events,” says Snyder-Mackler.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2121663119

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