A photo of several beige-colored macaque monkeys sitting around on rocks.
group of macaques groom one another beneath scarce shade on Cayo Santiago in May 2018, around eight months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.Lauren Brent

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Engaging in Argument form Evidence

Purpose: This activity will prompt students to think through the advantages and disadvantages of social behaviors in a variety of given situations. Students will start by analyzing the article “Macaques in Puerto Rico learned to share shade after Hurricane Maria” before moving on to discuss whether social behaviors would be advantageous or disadvantageous in specific situations. After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of social behaviors, students will write a paper that identifies a social animal species and evaluates how disturbances may affect the animals’ social behaviors and population distributions.

Procedural overview: In this activity, students will read the article “Macaques in Puerto Rico learned to share shade after Hurricane Maria” before answering a series of questions about the macaques and how their behavior changed after a major disturbance. After answering these questions, students will complete a “Where do you stand?” activity as a class. In this activity, students will be presented with a realistic situation and will move to one side of the room or the other to indicate whether they believe social behaviors would increase or decrease their survival rate. Each time a new situation is presented and students move, several students on each side of the room will be asked to share their reasoning. At the end of the “Where do you stand?” activity, students will produce a written work that examines the relationship between social behaviors and population distribution.

Approximate class time: 1 class period

Supplies: student worksheets

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Assign the Science News article “Macaques in Puerto Rico learned to share shade after Hurricane Maria” as homework.

For the “Where do you stand?” portion of the activity, students need a clear path for movement. Prior to this lesson, rearrange any desks or other objects that may prevent students from easily moving from one side of the room to the other.

Macaque social behavior

After reading the Science News article “Macaques in Puerto Rico learned to share shade after Hurricane Maria” as homework, ask students to answer the following questions.

1. How did the macaques behave before Hurricane Maria?

The macaques were aggressive and often fought over resources or potential mates, not spending much time with each other.

2. How did Hurricane Maria change the landscape of Cayo Santiago?

Hurricane Maria took down many of the trees and shrubs on Cayo Santiago, reducing the amount of available shade.

3. How did this change to the landscape affect the macaques’ behavior?

With the sudden lack of shade, the macaques started to fight less over resources and mates. Instead, the macaques began to spend more time closer to each other in the shade.

4. Why would this change in the macaques’ behavior increase survival?

The daytime temperature on Cayo Santiago is often around or over 40° C, and shade is crucial for providing relief from the sun and heat. With Hurricane Maria removing most of the shade on the island, the macaques needed to share this scarce resource. If the macaques were unable to share the shade, many of the macaques would not survive the heat.

5. There are three main population distribution patterns: clumped, random and uniform. Using the table below, add dots to represent macaques in the forested areas before and after Hurricane Maria. Shaded portions of the island indicate shade cover. Label each illustration as a clumped, random or uniform population distribution and provide an explanation for that label.

Before Hurricane Maria

Population distribution pattern: Uniform

Explanation: Before Hurricane Maria, most of Cayo Santiago had shade, so the macaques likely distributed themselves evenly across the shaded areas to avoid conflict over resources, such as food.
After Hurricane Maria

Population distribution pattern: Clumped

Explanation: After Hurricane Maria, there were very few areas with shade on Cayo Santiago, so to survive the macaques clumped together in the areas where shade was available.

6. What are some potential disadvantages of the new distribution pattern?

Because the macaques are now clumped together, they are more vulnerable to any potential new disturbances that may occur. For example, if one of the macaques were to contract a disease, the disease could spread rapidly through the macaque population. With the old uniform distribution pattern, disease would likely spread at a slower rate.

Where do you stand?

After students have answered the questions about the macaques’ social behavior, lead a “Where do you stand?” activity for the entire class. In this activity, students will be presented with a realistic situation and will have to evaluate whether they think being in a social group or being alone would increase their chance of survival. At the start of the activity, establish which side of the room represents “social groups” and which side of the room represents “individuals.” Once students are presented with a situation, they will move toward the side of the room that best represents their answer. Optionally, students may stop between the two sides of the room to indicate some degree of uncertainty about their answer.

Examples of situations for the “Where do you stand?” activity:

  • A hurricane has destroyed 90% of homes, along with the resources inside them.
  • A highly contagious disease outbreak has occurred.
  • Your plane crashed on a deserted island.
  • A natural disaster caused the containment building of a nuclear power plant to crack, exposing the surrounding city to high levels of radiation.
  • Animal waste from a concentrated animal feeding operation has contaminated local waterways.
  • A severe drought has significantly reduced the amount of available fresh water.
  • A tornado has taken out the local power grid, which will take several days to repair.

This activity should not be limited to the provided examples. Feel free to come up with more exciting, imaginative situations for this portion of the activity.

After each situation is presented, ask several students to share why they positioned themselves on (or toward) the “social groups” side of the room or the “individuals” side. Allow students from each opposing side to explain their reasoning. After representatives from each side are given the opportunity to speak, allow students to reposition themselves as a single group.

Optional: Survivability survey

As an optional extension for the “Where do you stand?” section of the activity, you can have students write a reflection about how they or their classmates responded to the situations presented. The situations presented in the activity are realistic and may have prompted some students to share unexpected thoughts or ideas. These written reflections should remain relatively short and no more than one paragraph.

Disturbances and distributions

After completing the “Where do you stand?” activity, students should write a paper that evaluates how the social behaviors of an animal species affect the animals’ survival. To write the paper, students will select a social species to research and their paper should discuss the social behaviors that this species of animal exhibits. For example, students could identify whitetail deer as a social species that congregates in herds for protection from predators. The paper should then identify two disturbances that could realistically occur in this species’ habitat. One of the disturbances identified should encourage the continuation of the social behaviors exhibited by the species; the second disturbance identified should discourage these social behaviors and encourage distance between members of the same species. Finally, the paper should identify how these disturbances could change the population distribution of the species, identifying the population distribution before and after each disturbance. This section of the activity could result in papers of varying lengths, so be sure to set expectations or provide a rubric to guide student responses. The prompt may also be adapted or shortened as needed.