Mystery of Gibraltar Monkeys Explained

Times Staff Writer

Scientists have used DNA to figure out the origin of Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques, which may have played a small part in winning World War II.

The macaques have long been figures of Gibraltar lore. As the story goes, when they are gone, the disputed British colony will return to Spanish rule.

In 1942, a handful of the monkeys remained. Gibraltar was militarily important, and any jolt to morale had to be avoided. Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent out a secret edict: Get more monkeys and bring them to the rock.


“Nobody knows where they got the macaques -- they just suddenly appeared in Gibraltar,” said Robert D. Martin, provost for academic affairs at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Martin and colleagues Lara Modolo and Walter Salzburger provided a partial answer in a paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists used DNA comparisons to conclude that the creatures came from two places -- Morocco and Algeria, the only regions where Barbary macaques still reside in the wild. Macaques from these two places are genetically distinct.

Martin said the mixed origins of the imported macaques helped explain why the roughly 200 macaques now in Gibraltar were relatively healthy despite the inevitable inbreeding.

“My expectation was that the macaques in Gibraltar would be a genetic disaster area,” he said. “But when we looked, their genetics was a lot more varied than I expected.”

If the legend is true, Spain may have to wait a while before it gets Gibraltar back.