Monkey Business in SC Grew From 1400 to 3500 Monkeys In 4 Decades

When I first heard about Morgan Island  - more descriptively known as ‘Monkey Island’ — I conjured up images of H.G. Wells’ 1896 science fiction novel: The Island of Doctor Moreau. Later adapted for the movies, both Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando were brilliantly cast at different times in the demonic role of the mad doctor, hell-bent on conducting research experiments on animals and humans.

Set in the South China Sea between the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, that ominous setting added to the tale’s chilling storytelling. Is Monkey Island's narrative something similar? While it's interesting to make a comparison, the scientific research conducted on Morgan Island is something quite different.                              

Coordinates: 32.4774º N and 80.5195ºW

The colony of 1400 rhesus macaque monkeys and the scientific project was launched in the summer of 1979 in La Parguera, Puerto Rico. This group of monkeys were then shipped 1300 miles away to Morgan Island, SC., across the waters from Beaufort, SC.

Set your course for 32.4774º N and 80.5195ºW, and you’ll reach this research center by water situated on the St. Helena Sound between the Coosaw and Morgan Rivers, But while you can view from the shore, you cannot physically enter the island.

What's up with this "monkey business"?

As a free-range colony, the monkey were bred to fulfill the needs of biomedical researchers. The colony is used by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as a source of biomedical research.

During the first decade in the 80's, the founding population of more than 1,400 monkeys grew to almost 3500, some 40+ years later. 

According to the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], the animals bred were used for research in  childhood diseases, AIDS, and bioterrorism. The $20.5 million used to purchase the island came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.   

A free-range colony to the Lowcountry

Over the years, researchers began to investigate the level of impact the colony had on its environment. That task fell to Jeanette Klopchin, who studied the island as part of her requirements to receive her Master's degree at the College of Charleston.   

Now working as a pollinator protection specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Klopchin had an indirect connection to the monkeys on Morgan Island. While studying at SUNY Oswego, she was mentored by Dr. Diane Chepko-Sade, who had previously studied the rhesus colony when it was still located in Puerto Rico. As Klopchin began looking at Morgan Island years later, she was actually researching the descendants of the earlier monkeys. 


One remarkable discovery was that even though many of the animals' social groups were broken up during the lengthy shipping process, researchers found that within months the monkeys had reunited with the same groups they shared in La Parguera.        

Klopchin also discovered that these monkeys made a minor impact on their habitat. Over the course of her research, she had the rare opportunity to visit Monkey Island, where she received a firsthand account of its inhabitants and their adopted home.

"I only stepped on the island during one visit. The monkeys have distinct social groups and are not accustomed to people at all, so they do not approach humans by any means," she says.

Hurricane Maria

As hurricanes have devastated a lot of American land, Hurricane Maria which made landfall in September, 2017 had the distinction of also hitting Monkey Island, dead-on. For 16 hours, the island was slammed by storm surges and 160 mile-per-hour winds.

Much of the island, vegetation and its few buildings were destroyed, along with its newly renovated pier and cisterns that provided fresh drinking water for the scientists and the monkeys. Nevertheless, the approximately 3,500 rhesus macaque monkeys on the island survived.

The First Rule of Monkey Island

Similar to the first rule of the "Fight Club" is "you don't talk about the Fight Club," -- the first rule Monkey Island is "you don't visit the island."  This is an important rule, for a few reasons, according to correspondent Jen Ashely of City Magazine:

  •  The monkeys prefer to enjoy a natural, undisrupted habitat
  •  Humans are gross– a.k.a. they may be carrying diseases that could potentially be transmitted to the monkeys
  •  Monkeys are wild animals– and although they may seem cute– they can pack a serious punch (and getting attacked by a monkey isn’t a cool scar story when said monkey weighs 15 lbs.)
  •  If that doesn’t sway you– those who get caught could be arrested for trespassing.


Fight Club


Primary Source:  Charleston City Paper



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