Cotton-top tamarin

Saguinus oedipus

Cotton-top tamarins are very small tree-dwelling monkeys that live in the humid and dry forests of Northwest Columbia. They move from the ground to the tops of the canopy, but they are most often found in the lower levels of the forest.

The life of a cotton-top tamarin

These remarkable little monkeys are 9 inches long from head to tail and weigh less than a pound. Their claw-like nails, called "tegulae," allow them to climb trees like squirrels.

Cotton-tops live in family groups of between 2 and 13, usually made up of one or two breeding individuals of each sex. They are joined by young adults, who stay in the family group to help rear infants. The group raises their young cooperatively, a practice called "alloparenting." Tamarins, humans and marmosets are the only primates to engage in this level of cooperative parenting.

The tamarin family begins the day an hour or so after sunrise. Throughout the day they forage and rest on and off, covering about a mile of forest in the process. They eat mostly insects and fruit but also forage for nectar, frogs, lizards and bird eggs. At night they sleep together in a tree, with one member serving as the "guard" who looks out for predators.

Cotton-top tamarins have developed a sophisticated vocal language, using single vocalizations and combinations of 38 distinct sounds to communicate to family members and interlopers. They leave scent marks to define their territories and elevate their white hair into a fan shape, frown, or flick their tongues at competitors to display aggression.

Female cotton-tops begin having young at 18 months, and give birth to non-identical twins after a pregnancy of about 140 days. The babies are helpless at birth and weigh 15-20% of their mother's weight. The father assists at the birth and carries the infants much of the time, except when the mother is feeding them. After the first week, other family members join the parents in helping to carry the infants until about 14 weeks, when the twins can move independently.

Cotton-top tamarins live an average of 13.5 years in the wild. They may live longer in captivity.

Cotton-top tamarin conservation

Eighty percent of cotton-top tamarin habitat in Columbia has been lost to deforestation in the last 20 years, and the species has been listed as critically endangered since 2008. One major population loss came during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when as many as 30,000 cotton-tops were exported to the U.S. for biomedical research. The remaining 6,000 or so cotton-top tamarins are threatened by ongoing deforestation. The Columbia-based Proyecto Tití works to protect cotton-top tamarins through field research, education and community programs.

How you can help cotton-top tamarins

Whether you're purchasing napkins, paper or a bed frame, look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label to help ensure that your wood product is "friendly" to forests. Forests are home to 80% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity and they help to stabilize the earth's climate. FSC standards help limit clear cuts, restrict the most hazardous chemicals and reduce erosion along rivers.

Cotton-top tamarins at the Oregon Zoo

The cotton-top tamarins at the Oregon Zoo live in the Fragile Forest exhibit. Their habitat includes three indoor areas filled with plants and vines and an off-exhibit rooftop area where the monkeys can spend time outdoors.