Found only in the forests of northwestern Colombia, this tiny monkey is known locally as “Tití Cabeciblanco” or simply “Tití”.
The cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) weighs no more than a pound (0.45 kg) and is named for the tuft of white hair on its head.
These miniature monkeys are arboreal (tree-dwelling) and live 20-30 feet (6-9 meters) above the ground. They spend most of their time in the trees, rarely coming down to the forest floor.
Cotton-tops live in families of 2-10 individuals, typically made up of a breeding pair and their offspring and sometimes unrelated immigrants. They spend time grooming each other and take turns keeping an eye out for possible predators like birds of prey and snakes.
Females often give birth to twins after a gestation of about 180 days. The babies weigh about 15-20% of the mother’s body weight and ride on the backs of the adults. All members help care for the infants – a behavior called alloparenting.
This cooperative care is not only essential to the survival of the infants but teaches vital life skills to the “babysitters”. Parental care is not instinctual but learned. If a tamarin has never carried a baby on its back it will likely reject its own offspring.
While they are caring towards family member, cotton-tops are very territorial towards neighboring groups.
Cotton-top tamarins are very vocal animals. They communicate through a surprisingly complex combination of chirps, whistles, squeals, screams and twitters. Researchers have identified 38 different vocalizations used to communicate with family members, convey playfulness, curiosity or fear, alert of danger, talk about food and more.
Certain calls may even reflect food preferences. A cotton-tops diet consists of fruit, nectar, sap, gum and insects. Tamarins may also be helpful in the propagation of the forest as digested seeds have been found to germinate better than non-digested ones.
Sadly, the cotton-top tamarin’s Colombian forest home is being destroyed and young tamarins are being taken for the illegal pet trade. With less than 7,400 remaining in the wild, these tiny tamarins are listed as Critically Endangered and are considered one of the most endangered primates in the world.
But there is hope. Proyecto Tití, a conservation organization founded in 1985 by Dr. Anne Savage, works through scientific and field studies, public education and economic alternatives to help save the cotton-top tamarin.
Some local economic programs initiated include:
Tití Posts, fence posts that, instead of using trees the tamarins call home, are made out of recycled plastic, that would otherwise litter the environment.
“Eco-mochila”, traditional bags hand-crocheted out of recycled plastic bags by women artisans of the village of Los Limites. Sales of these practical items helps generate income for their families and reducing their dependency on the forest’s resources.
To learn more about the cotton-top tamarin, what’s being done to protect them and how you can help, visit Proyecto Titi