Descendants of Escaped Monkeys from Florida Zoo Found

primates near fort lauderdale airport linked to 1948 zoo escape

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A group of monkeys in the Florida wilds have famous jailbreaking ancestors. The population of African green monkeys have thrived in a forest near a Florida airport since escaping a zoo in 1948. The primate order consists of pre-monkeys and higher primates.

Family of monkeys
Researchers classify the modern primate group into two suborders: Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini. Photo By tratong / Shutterstock

For 70 years, a mangrove forest near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has housed inhabitants with a mischievous history: descendants of a 1948 zoo escape of African green monkeys. Fifty primates escaped from captivity during the breakout, and only two-thirds were ever recovered. The remainder permanently took up residence in the forest—unless they’ve just been waiting near the airport temporarily for forged passports.

In his video series Zoology: Understanding the Animal World, Dr. Donald E. Moore III, Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, explained how primates have adapted, earning their respective classifications.

A Tall Order

The modern primate group includes two suborders,” Dr. Moore said. “The first is the suborder Strepsirrhini, or ‘wet-nosed’ pre-monkeys, which includes the lemurs, sifakas, and aye-aye—which consist of about 22 species in 12 genera of four distinct families which inhabit the large island of Madagascar—as well as the bushbabies (or galagos) and lorises, 33 species of several genera which inhabit Asia and Africa.”

The other suborder, according to Dr. Moore, is the suborder Haplorrhini, the “dry-nosed” primates, also known as higher primates. The higher primates include the seven species of tarsiers that make up the infraorder Tarsiiformes. They also include the infraorder Simiiformes, which he said are “basically everything else.”

The Simiiformes include the New World monkeys of Central and South America, 30 species in 11 genera; as well as a group of small animals without prehensile tails, the 25 species of New World marmosets and tamarins in five genera,” he said. “Families in this order from the Old World—meaning Africa and Asia—include the Cercopithecidae, the baboons, the macaques, and others—a family that includes 82 species in 14 genera.”

Dr. Moore said that the Simiiformes suborder also includes nine species of lesser apes including all gibbons and the siamang. Finally, it includes the four species of great apes: the bonobo or pygmy chimp, the common chimpanzee, the orangutan, and the gorilla.

And, of course, us.

Evolutionary Changes in Primates

During the natural course of evolution, from the doglike lemur to great apes and humans, one of the most noticeable changes in our physiology has been a flattening of our faces, especially in the nose area.

“Although olfaction is the dominant sense in most mammals, we can no longer smell as well as dogs can, and our brain’s olfactory bulb has decreased in size as well,” Dr. Moore said. “We have stereoscopic vision with our forward-facing eyes and our optic lobe has increased in size.

“This trait was initially an adaptation to life in the trees; our primate ancestors needed stereoscopic vision to judge distance as they leaped from branch to branch in the trees.”

Dr. Moore noted that as primates advanced, we also developed longer lifespans and time of maternal care, increasing the chance of survival for infants and more time for babies to learn social behavior. He said that this behavior is associated with delayed sexual maturity and a longer “inter-birth interval,” which helped increase the complexity of social behavior.

The green monkey is one such highly social species, living in large groups; it’s a member of the Cercopithecidae family.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily