CHICAGO, April 25 (UPI) -- Researchers at Chicago's Field Museum have determined Gibraltar's Barbary Macaques are descended from populations in Algeria and Morocco.
Europe's only free-ranging monkeys, the 200 specimens running wild on the British island territory, are the outcome of a clandestine operation to replenish their numbers ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.
Churchill wanted to avoid losing the gateway to the Mediterranean, as superstition held would happen if the animals died out, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported Monday.
"Our project was designed as a test case for conservation genetics," said Field Museum Provost Robert Martin, a co-author of the study. "The Gibraltar colony of Barbary macaques provided an ideal example of genetic isolation of a small population, which is now a regular occurrence among wild primate populations because of forest fragmentation.
"To our surprise, we found a relatively high level of genetic variability in the Gibraltar macaques. This is now explained by our conclusion that the population was founded with individuals from two genetically distinct populations in Algeria and Morocco."