These tamarins have a very limited range, and three-quarters of their forest habitat has now been destroyed. Their population consists of around 2000 individuals.
Cotton-top tamarins have an unusual breeding system. They live in groups of up to 20 adults, but only one pair breeds. The other adults in the group act as helpers. Most of the helpers are younger individuals. Their assistance reduces the infant mortality of this species to levels lower than those of all mammals, apart from humans. Although they appear to lose out by not breeding from an early age, the helpers gain valuable experience by assisting the older breeding pair.
When the helpers come to breed themselves, they are likely to be more successful. The helpers form small subgroups that move in and out of the breeding pair’s home range. The home range is marked using scent.
About half of the diet of cotton-top tamarins is made up of insects. The rest comprises fruits and the sweet gums that exude from tree trunks. Nature reserves have been set up to conserve the species.
Cotton-top tamarins have a crest of white hair that runs from the forehead to the nape of the neck. The rump and inner thighs are red-orange. These coloured surfaces may be used to flash signals to other tamarins through dense foliage.
Cotton-top tamarins have a remarkable ability to communicate with each other, possessing 38 distinctive calls, ranging from bird-like whistles to much more staccato vocalizations. These help to indicate the monkey’s mood and also indicate possible danger. Their body language is much more limited, but they can lower their foreheads over their eyes and erect their cotton-like crest, as a warning gesture. If threatened by another troop, cottontop tamarins will display their hindquarters as a means of intimidating them.
Distribution: Found in Colombia, in northwestern South America. Their distribution lies between the Atrato River and the Magdalena River in the remaining areas of forest.
Habitat: Tropical rainforest.
Weight: 400 - 450 g (14.1 - 15.9 oz).
Length: 45 - 50 cm (18 - 20 in) overall; tail is longer than the body.
Maturity: Females around 1.5 years; males 2 years.
Gestation Period: 125 - 140 days.
Breeding: 2, sometimes 1; female troop members assist in raising the youngsters.
Diet: Fruit and invertebrates, plus leaves, sap and nectar.
Lifespan: Up to 13.5 years.
The versatile front feet can support the monkey’s weight when running along a branch, or be used to peel fruit.
The eyes are brown and the nose is large and black.
The upperparts are reddish-brown, contrasting with the white fur of the underparts.
These are well-muscled, enabling cotton-top tamarins to jump well.
On the move
The young tamarins are carried by various members of the troop, not just their own parents. They grip on tightly.
These tamarins have a highly developed social structure, and will recognize each other when they meet. They tend to move along a branch on all fours, but can walk on their hind legs, too.
Viewed face-on, it is easy to see where the cotton-top tamarin gets its name.