Cotton-top tamarin

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Suborder: Haplorrhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Cebidae
Subfamily: Callitrichinae
Genus: Saguinus
Species: S. oedipus

Other names: cotton-headed tamarin or white-plumed bare-face tamarin; paryk-pinché (Danish); gewone pincheaap (Dutch); valkotöyhtötamariini (Finnish); tamarin d’Oedipe, tamarin à perruque, or tamarin pinché (French); lisztäffchen (German); bichichi, mono tití cabeciblanco, tití, titis, tití blanco, tití leoncito, or tití pielroja (Spanish); bomullshuvudtamarin or pinché (Swedish)

Conservation status: please search the IUCN Red List.

Life span: 13.5 years
Total population: 1800 (captive), 6000 (wild)
Regions: Colombia
Gestation: 6 months (183 days)
Height: 232 mm (M & F)
Weight: 411 g (M), 430 g (F)


These New World monkeys are small-bodied and easily recognized by the characteristic fan of long, white hair on their heads. They have very fine hair on their black-skinned faces such that their faces appear naked. Tamarins are characterized by their facial appearances and are divided into three groups: the hairy-face, mottled-face, and bare-face groups. Cotton-top tamarins are categorized in the bare-face group (Garber 1993). They have mottled gray-brown shoulders, back, and rump while their stomach and limbs are white. They have reddish-brown hair on the back of their thighs and base of their tail but the rest of the tail is gray-brown-black (Rowe 1996; Groves 2001). Cotton-top tamarins are not sexually dimorphic and the average height of both males and females is 232 mm (9.13 in) (Rowe 1996). Wild males and females weigh between 410 and 450 g (14.5 and 15.9 oz) but average 416.5 g (14.7 oz), while captive cotton-top tamarins are significantly heavier and weigh, on average, 565.7 g (19.9 oz) (Savage 1990).

Cotton top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

The most common modes of locomotion for cotton-top tamarins include quadrupedal running, bounding, or galloping along medium to small branches as well as clinging and leaping between trees on thin or small branches (Rowe 1996; Kinzey 1997). Members of the subfamily Callitrichinae have claw-like nails (called tegulae) that resemble a squirrel’s rather than the flat nails (called ungulae) characteristic of other primates, including humans. These claw-like nails aid in clinging, running, and leaping through trees (Kinzey 1997). Cotton-top tamarins also exhibit the trait of primarily giving birth to non-identical twins, as is seen in other callitrichines (Rowe 1996).

Cotton-top tamarins live for an average of 13.5 years, but the oldest recorded cotton-top tamarin lived to be 24 years old in captivity (Rowe 1996; Savage pers. comm.).


Saguinus oedipus

Cotton-top tamarins are one of three Amazonian species of tamarin and are found in a small area of northwest Colombia in a range bound by the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers and the Atlantic coast (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Groves 2001). Though the overall area bound to the north by the Magdalena River and the west by the Cauca River has historically been suitable habitat for cotton-top tamarins, they are now only found in fragmented parks and reserves throughout this area. One of the strongholds of the remaining cotton-top tamarins is in Paramillo National Park, a 540 km² (208 mi²) park containing primary and secondary forest (Mast et al. 1993).

One of the only long-term studies of wild cotton-top tamarins was started in the mid-1970s by primatologist Patricia Neyman. Not only did she habituate wild groups but she also live-trapped and marked them, allowing for qualitative research on group membership changes and life history characteristics of individual animals (Neyman 1977). More recently, Anne Savage and her colleagues began working on a long-term research and conservation project in La Reserva Forestal Protectora Serranía de Coraza-Montes de Marìa in Colombia, another principal refuge for cotton-top tamarins (Savage et al. 1996a).

It is estimated that there are between 300 and 1000 cotton-top tamarins left in Colombia (Savage 1990). There are 1800 cotton-top tamarins in captivity and of those, 64% are found in research laboratories (Savage et al. 1997a).


Cotton-top tamarins are found in humid tropical forest, dry deciduous forest, and secondary growth forest (Hernández-Camacho & Cooper 1976; Snowdon & Soini 1988; Mast et al. 1993; Kinzey 1997). Tropical forests have multiple vertical layers of growth, from the short understory (less than 5 meters) to the tallest trees in the canopy (over 20 meters). Cotton-top tamarins use multiple layers of the tropical forests in which they are found, moving vertically between the understory and canopy, but preferentially utilizing the lower vertical levels of the forest. They are most commonly found in trees but can be seen on the ground, foraging among leaf litter (Snowdon & Soini 1988). These tamarins are also highly adaptable to secondary or remnant forest fringes or patches and can live in relatively disturbed habitats. They are found primarily at elevations below 1500 m (4921 ft), but rarely above 400 m (1312 ft) (Hernández-Camacho & Cooper 1976).

In the deciduous or dry forest parts of their range, rainfall is highly seasonal, with the dry season lasting from December to April and heavy rainfall from August to November. Annual average rainfall varies between 500 and 1000 mm (1.64 and 3.28 ft) and there are periods when the forest floor is flooded (Neyman 1977). In the humid rainforest where they are found, annual rainfall can be as high as 1300 mm (4.27 ft) (Mast et al. 1993).


Cotton top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

The primary components of cotton-top tamarin diet are insects, fruit, plant exudates, and nectar, but they have also been recorded eating reptiles and amphibians. It is important for tamarins to have a high-quality, high-energy diet because of their small-body size, limited gut volume, and rapid rate of food passage (Garber 1993). The role of plant exudates in the diet of callitrichines is important as a source of minerals, water, and other nutrients though tamarins do not have the same specialized adaptations to feeding on gum, sap, resin, and latex as do marmosets (Callithrix species) and are therefore primarily dependent on insects and fruits (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Kinzey 1997). When they do eat gum, cotton-top tamarins rely on more indirect means to obtain exudates than their marmoset (Callithrix species) counterparts; they depend on natural weathering of bark, the holes left by wood-boring insects or rodents, and re-gouging of hardened gum holes to stimulate flow (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Kinzey 1997). Insectivory is also important in their ecology. Some insect-hunting techniques employed by cotton-top tamarins include stealth, turning over leaves, exploring crevices, pouncing, and moving rapidly to the ground to seize prey. Like foraging for other foods, hunting for insects is an individualistic behavior (Garber 1993). Foraging occurs in the middle layer of the canopy from five to 15 m (16 to 49 ft), and while cotton-top tamarins select a feeding site because of its fruit availability, they also hunt for insects and utilize gum in the vicinity (Neyman 1977). Cotton-top tamarins clearly compete for access to some foods with squirrels, other diurnal primate species, and various birds. They also may be competing for access to food resources with nocturnal fruit and insect-eating species including bats (Neyman 1977).

Tamarins are highly important seed dispersers in tropical ecosystems. They ingest and void seeds larger than those consumed by much larger species of primates, including chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), baboons (Papio species), and macaques (Macaca species). Voided seeds show high germination success compared to others, but there may be another benefit to this seed-swallowing behavior (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Garber 1993; Sussman 2000). One function of swallowing such disproportionately large seeds may be to mechanically expel intestinal parasites from their digestive tract. Certain worms, caused by consuming orthopteran prey, attach to the lining of the gut and cause inflammation, lesions, and death. By swallowing and expelling seeds, these may, as they work their way through the gastrointestinal tract, dislodge intestinal parasites (Sussman 2000).

The typical daily routine of cotton-tops involves an alternating pattern of foraging, resting, and traveling. They sleep in a group and start their day about an hour and 20 minutes after dawn when the entire party leaves the sleeping tree at the same time. Cotton-top tamarins follow established routes to find available foods, moving between .12 and .24 (.07 and .15 mi) per hour and covering about 1.5 and 1.9 km (.93 and 1.18 mi) per day over home ranges of between .078 and .10 km² (.03 and .04 mi²) (Neyman 1977). After about an hour of foraging, they begin to rest for a few minutes at a time, either stretching out on a branch or grooming within the social group. They continue to travel and forage throughout the day, taking increasingly longer resting periods, the longest being around midday. In late afternoon, they begin to travel more quickly and more cohesively with limited foraging stops until they reach a sleeping tree (Neyman 1977). Cotton-top tamarins prefer to sleep in trees with some foliage cover such as broad leaves, vines, epiphytes, or lianas. They repeatedly use trees within their home range for sleeping sites, but do not generally use the same tree on consecutive nights (Savage 1990). By selectively choosing sleeping trees, getting a relatively late start to their day compared to other primates, and hastening foraging and traveling speed before dusk, cotton-top tamarins may be avoiding many crepuscular and nocturnal predators. Some of the main predators of cotton-top tamarins include raptors, mustelids, felids, and snakes (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Sussman 2000). Cotton-top tamarins are extremely vigilant, constantly scanning for potential predators above and around them and even in captivity can be observed stopping their activities to look around (Price 1992). In the wild, when the group rests during the day, one group member separates itself from the resting animals and remains vigilant, alarming the group through vocalizations if it detects danger (Savage 1990).

Content last modified: May 18, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Anne Savage.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 May 18. Primate Factsheets: Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <>. Accessed 2020 July 30.


Cotton top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

Though cotton-top tamarins have been extensively studied in captivity, their social organization in the wild is not fully understood. Cotton-top tamarins are found in groups of two to seven individuals, but also live in groups as large as 13 animals (Neyman 1977; Savage et al. 1996a). These groups are composed of one or two breeding males and females and other individuals of varying sex and age. Tamarin groups are multi-generational, including a dominant breeding pair and their offspring of various ages as well as unrelated immigrant adults, but results from genetic tests have not been published confirming the relationships of individuals within groups. One of the core social behaviors of callitrichines, including cotton-top tamarins, is cooperative rearing of young (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Savage 1990; Savage et al. 1996a). Sexually mature adolescents and adults remain in their natal groups in order to help raise their siblings and this pattern of behavior shapes the social structure of wild groups. Young cotton-tops do not remain in their natal groups indefinitely and group size may fluctuate over time as adults and subadults migrate into and out of the group for new mating opportunities (Neyman 1977; Savage et al. 1996a; Sussman 2000). There is no sex or age bias in migration; males and females emigrate from their natal groups equally as frequently and the age at migration varies (Savage 1990). Once cotton-top tamarins emigrate into neighboring groups, they generally assume a non-reproductive role but are active care-takers of the infants and become fully integrated into the social hierarchy of the group (Savage 1990).

Social relationships within cotton-top tamarin groups are generally friendly with few signs of aggression within the social group (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Garber 1997). There is a dominance hierarchy in which the primary breeding male and female are codominant over younger or non-breeding animals within the group and breeding females can be quite aggressive toward younger females (Savage et al. 1988; Snowdon & Soini 1988). The breeding female within the group is, in certain feeding contexts, dominant over all other group members and maintains access to food items (Garber 1997). Cotton-top tamarins are territorial, though males and females react to intruders differently. Males are more tolerant of female intruders and are more aggressive toward male intruders, while females are somewhat intolerant of intruders of both sexes and display threateningly. When neighboring groups of cotton-top tamarins encounter each other, there is no physical contact between members of the different groups though there may be threat displays (Savage 1990). All members of the group react cohesively and mob potential predators as well as defend injured group members (Snowdon & Soini 1988). One of the behaviors that reinforces this group cohesiveness is grooming. Cotton-top tamarins spend a considerable amount of time grooming throughout the day during periods of rest. Grooming is a social tool to create and maintain bonds between primates. In cotton-top tamarins, the majority of grooming occurs between breeding adults in a group and both sexes groom and are groomed equally (Snowdon & Soini 1988).


Cotton top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

Traditionally housed in monogamous family units in captivity, monogamy was long thought to be the breeding pattern in wild populations. In reality, cotton-top tamarins have been observed in seemingly monogamous groups with only one breeding male and one breeding female but also in polygamous groups with multiple breeding males and females (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Savage et al. 1996a). While two pregnant females have been reported in one wild group, there are no reports of two females producing and rearing offspring in the same social group (Savage et al. 1996a, 1997b). The mechanism for this pattern has been studied extensively in monogamous captive groups (Neyman 1977; Savage et al. 1988, 1996a). In both captive and wild groups of cotton-top tamarins, only one adult female within the social group is reproductively active. The dominant breeding female within the group suppresses reproduction in the other sexually mature females, which are often her daughters, but can also be unrelated female immigrants (Savage et al. 1988; Snowdon & Soini 1988). Suppression of reproduction, both in wild and captive groups, is linked to the behavioral and chemical restriction of sexual behavior within the group, delay of onset of puberty, and general stress effects. It is possible that pheremonal cues from the dominant female are the mechanism by which reproduction is surpassed in younger, subordinate females within the group (Savage et al. 1988; Heistermann et al. 1989). However, the immigration of new, unrelated males into established groups appears to have an effect in releasing subordinate females from this reproductive suppression. In groups with new males, there is greater likelihood that two females will become pregnant but only one female will give birth to live offspring (Savage et al. 1997b).

Sexual maturation is a prolonged process rather than a single event in the life of a primate (Tardif 1984). Puberty occurs between 15 and 18 months of age in cotton-top tamarin females, and though they may reach sexual maturity by this age, they do not exhibit normal ovarian cycles unless the proper social environment is present (Tardif 1984; Ziegler et al. 1987). As has been shown in laboratory studies, young females do not cycle while in their natal groups because of suppression by the dominant female, but as soon as they are removed and placed with an unrelated male, young cotton-top tamarins exhibit normal fertility and begin to cycle regularly (Ziegler et al. 1987). If the dominant breeding female is removed from the social group, the oldest and highest-ranking daughter within the group becomes fertile and successfully suppresses fertility in younger, subordinate females (Heistermann et al. 1989). Hormonal analyses reveal that ovarian cycles in cotton-top tamarins last about 15.5 days and there are no apparent physical signs of estrus (Tardif 1984; Snowdon & Soini 1988). Mating occurs throughout the ovarian cycle with peaks during presumed estrus. Gestation lasts six months (183 days) and within five months after parturition, cotton-top tamarins resume cycling. The interbirth interval is about 48 weeks in the wild but in captivity, cotton-tops give birth every 28 weeks (Savage 1990; Savage et al. 1997). In captivity, they experience immediate postpartum estrous, unlike wild cotton-tops that do not exhibit ovulation for five to six months after parturition (Achenbach & Snowdon 2002; Savage et al. 1997b). Like all callitrichines, cotton-top tamarins exhibit highly seasonal birth patterns with the peak season lasting from two to three months during the early half of the rainy season, between April and June (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Savage et al. 1997b). The timing of the birth season is linked to the period of highest fruit abundance. Given that cotton-top tamarins give birth to twins more frequently than singletons, the energetic requirements of nursing and caring for infants is extremely energetically taxing on the mother and one adaptation to this physical stress is to time births with periods of highest availability of food resources (McGrew & Webster 1995).


Cotton top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

Cooperative infant-care in tamarin social groups is essential to the survival of infants (Savage et al. 1996b; Garber 1997). A single pair of tamarins would not likely be able to successfully rear twins in the wild and are therefore dependent on the help of other group members (Savage et al. 1996b). Furthermore, parental behavior is not instinctual but learned, and both males and females that are inexperienced are unsuccessful caregivers. If a cotton-top tamarin of either sex has no experience carrying infants, its own offspring are likely to be rejected or abused (Bardi et al. 2001; Savage et al. 1996b). Finally, one of the most important functions of group care and cooperative parenting is to increase predator detection through vigilance (Savage et al. 1996b).

Born weighing 15 to 20% of their mother’s body weight, to carry even one of the twins is an energetically demanding feat (Savage et al. 1996b). They mature rapidly in their first few months and are usually carried dorsally as a pair throughout the first month of life (Garber 1997). In the wild, males and females of all ages carry and exchange food with the infants, even if they are not related to the twins. The mother is the primary carrier for the first week of life, when the twins are nursing constantly. As the mother decreases the amount of time spent carrying the infants over the first eight weeks of life, other group members, especially males, increase the amount of time spent carrying the twins (Savage et al. 1996b). Infant cotton-top tamarins are carried exclusively for the first month after which they gradually decrease the amount of time they are carried by group members. By week 10 the infants move independently about 50% of the time (Savage et al. 1996b). After 14 weeks of age they are rarely seen being carried.

Infant survival in the first year of life is higher in the wild than in captivity (Price 1990). Eighty-six percent of infants born in appropriate environmental conditions will survive in wild populations (Savage et al. 1996b). This higher survival rate may be attributed to more experienced helpers because of dispersal between groups. In captivity, there is limited opportunity for young tamarins to gain parenting experience through carrying, while in the wild, natural patterns of migration allow young cotton-top tamarins to gain this valuable parenting experience (Savage et al. 1996b). Larger groups are also a contributing factor for higher survivability of infants and in the wild, infant survivability approaches 100% in a group of five (Savage et al. 1996b). In the wild, larger groups can forage more efficiently, have higher likelihood of detecting predators, and are more able to spread out the energetic costs of carrying infants than smaller groups (Savage et al. 1996b). Energetic costs of carrying infants has been studied by comparing pre- and post-birth weights of males in captive groups, showing that males lose significant amounts of weight during the period of most infant carrying (Achenbach & Snowdon 2002). All caregivers spend less time feeding, foraging, moving, or engaging in social activities while carrying infants and spend more time in concealed areas (Price 1992). Caregivers obviously sacrifice energetically when they carry and protect new infants, but they certainly reap benefits from this relationship. They may ensure the survival of the infants and increase their direct or indirect fitness, acquire a position in a new group, learn how to be a successful parent, secure affiliative bonds with the younger animals that may help when they begin to breed, and gain access to future mating opportunities (Price 1992; Garber 1997; Achenbach & Snowdon 2002).


Small-bodied and living in dense vegetation, cotton-top tamarins do not rely heavily on visual signals for communication, but are more attuned to chemical and auditory signals (Snowdon & Soini 1988). There are some visual signals that are important for close-up interactions between animals. Tongue flicking is a unique tamarin behavior used in many different contexts including aggression and mating. Piloerection is another important visual signal that is used in displays of aggression; the white fur on the head can be raised and lowered creating a striking fan display (Snowdon & Soini 1988). Other visual behavior patterns seen in cotton-top tamarins include grimacing/teeth baring displayed by a high-ranking female to a subordinate, head flicking during aggressive displays, frowning to demonstrate hostility, and head lowering as a sign of appeasement by subordinate animals (Snowdon & Soini 1988). Often, vocal communication accompanies these postures to convey a message to other animals. Vocal communication between tamarins serves primarily as group defense, group cohesion, alarm calling, and close contact communication. All callitrichines use “chirp” or “chuck calls” and “slicing screams” during mobbing attacks of predators or intruders or during feeding (Snowdon & Soini 1988). Cotton-top tamarins use “long calls” in response to calls from distant animals and “quiet long calls” and “trills” in close communication (Snowdon & Soini 1988).


While visual and vocal communication is seemingly simplistic in cotton-top tamarins, chemical communication is complex and factors into many facets of social structure and relationships between animals. Some important information conveyed by chemical cues in cotton-top tamarins includes species identification, individual identity, and timing of ovulation (Washabaugh & Snowdon 1998). Males and females possess scent glands around their anus and genitals, but females have more highly developed glands which they use more often than males (Snowdon & Soini 1988). Females use their well-developed scent glands to mark surfaces 10 times more frequently than do males (Washabaugh & Snowdon 1998). One reason females have such well-developed scent glands and scent-mark so often compared to males is they mark surfaces to signal sexual receptivity. Chemical cues signal to other group members, especially males, that a female is ovulating. These chemical cues left by ovulating females may also be a factor in reproductive suppression of subordinate females (Ziegler et al. 1993; Washabaugh & Snowdon 1998).

Content last modified: May 18, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Anne Savage.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 May 18. Primate Factsheets: Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) Behavior . <>. Accessed 2020 July 30.


For individual primate species conservation status, please search the IUCN Red List.
Also search the current scientific literature for primate conservation status (overall as well as for individual species), and visit CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Conservation information last updated in 2005 follows, for comparison:Cotton top tamarin

Saguinus oedipusWhile they were exported for use in biomedical research in the tens of thousands in the 1960s and early 1970s, the cotton-top tamarin is now restricted from international trade and has, since 1976, the highest level of protection afforded by CITES (Mast et al. 1993). Surveys reveal that there are only between 300 and 1000 cotton-top tamarins left in the wild (Savage 1990).


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Losing more than 4000 km² (1544 mi²) of forest or 5% of the tropical habitat per year, Colombia is one of the top ten countries worldwide in terms of deforestation (Savage et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993). This astonishing rate of deforestation can be attributed to removal of forest products for subsistence and traditional uses, swidden agriculture, and large-scale clearing for industrial agriculture and cattle grazing (Savage et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993). The lowland forest on which the cotton-top tamarin depends has been reduced to a mere 5% of its former geographic range, posing a considerable threat to the monkey. The northern part of Colombia is the most densely populated area in the country and only three blocks of high-quality forest remain (Alderman 1989). Fragmentsof forest dispersed across the landscape in this part of the country hold remnant populations of primates, and luckily, cotton-top tamarins seem to adjust and can live in these disturbed habitats (Alderman 1989). If deforestation does not stop or if restoration does not become a top priority, the cotton-top tamarin will simply not have a place to live (Defler 2004).

The major cause behind deforestation is the overuse of forest products by an exploding human population. Whether pressure from subsistence users, swidden farmers, or exploitative timber corporations, large-scale forest loss has occurred in Colombia and other parts of the world at unprecedented and ever-increasing rates (Mittermeier et al. 1989; Mast et al. 1993; Defler 2004). Removal of selected plant products by traditional means in Colombia does not involve the same kind of overt destruction of habitat as is seen with large-scale clearance, but it does pose a threat to cotton-top tamarins because some of the targeted tree species are important to the feeding ecology of the tamarins (Alderman 1989). Specifically, removal of plants that are important dry season resources can be detrimental to monkeys that depend on those species during stressful times of year. Clearance or damage to the understory for obtaining subsistence usage firewood and charcoal may have detrimental side effects as well, damaging the layers of forest important for insect foraging (Alderman 1989). In particularly poor areas where the only available cooking fuel is wood, a family of five consumes about 15 logs of wood per day (Savage et al. 1996/1997). If these logs are cleared from an area and no replanting occurs, it is understandable that large swaths of land may be cleared over time, resulting in significant habitat loss for the tamarins.

On a larger scale, commercial logging can result in massive forest removal through clear-cutting. Forests take a long time to recover from clear-cutting while the ecosystem is completely disrupted and may not recover. Commercial logging also directly affects colonization rates because as timber companies go deeper into forests, they clear roads for their trucks and leave tracts of land cleared and ready for human settlement (Marsh et al. 1987). This process occurs in Colombia because, like in many clear-cut areas, vacant tracts are not being replanted (Alderman 1989). Land cleared for agriculture, both small-scale shifting cultivation and large-scale plantations and ranching, is also increasing in Colombia.

Exploring for oil in the lowlands of Colombia is a growing threat to cotton-top tamarins as well. The area is rich in hydrocarbon reserves and the economic boom associated with oil extraction certainly will bring even more people to the area in search of jobs as well as opening up forests to roads and settlement (Mittermeier et al. 1999).

Another serious human-induced threat is damming for hydroelectric power. Proposed dams would flood the forest and destroy about 540 km² (208 mi²) of primary and secondary forests within Paramillo National Park, one of the last protected areas in which the tamarins are found (Mast et al. 1993). Hydroelectric power is an inexpensive, renewable source of energy for Colombia, but damming areas of high biodiversity not only wipes out fragile ecosystems but also displaces indigenous peoples living in the forest, forcing them into remaining forest fragments and increasing pressure on those areas of forest that are not flooded (Mast el al. 1993).

Potential Solutions

While 10% of the land in Colombia is legally protected in national parks, at least 30% of national parks are invaded by colonists or subject to other claims (Defler 2004). The protection of these parks on paper must be translated to real regulation to make them more effective. Even more important is to find ways of providing services that the forest would provide to colonists including fuel, protein sources, and income.

Providing alternate fuel sources is an important step in reducing the amount of forest products used on a daily basis in Colombia. Proyecto Tití, a conservation project sponsored by Roger Williams Park Zoo, the Ministerio de Ambiente (the environmental protection agency of Colombia), and CARSUCRE (a regional environmental organization), has worked to provide alternate cooking methods that minimize the amount of non-sustainable forest product usage. By working with local communities to see which cooking methods worked best and which they preferred, the project managers determined that by modifying a traditional clay oven, they could use corn husks, coconut shells, and other vegetative waste products as efficient fuel sources and decrease pressure on surrounding forests (Savage et al. 1997c). These low-cost ovens have been distributed to community members and are being used with great success. Similar technology could be used in other villages that border cotton-top tamarin habitats. If alternate fuel sources cannot be obtained or cooking methods do not change, some effort should be concentrated into replanting frequently harvested areas to hasten the regeneration of important food sources for the tamarins as well as provide future resources for local communities.

Hydroelectricity makes up about 70% of Colombia’s electric power while only 6% of the hydroelectric potential is currently being exploited. Power companies as well as the Colombian government must take into consideration environmental and socioeconomic factors when building dams. Fortunately, Colombia’s power sector has historically avoided major negative environmental and social impacts resulting from erecting dams, but as the human population grows and the demand for electricity also increases, this record will be difficult to maintain (Mast et. al 1993). Power companies must work with the Colombian government to assess impacts on biodiversity and Colombian citizens to avoid disastrous engineering decisions.

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

Primates have little value in Colombia other than for their meat and as export commodities (Defler 2004). Live capture for biomedical research and the pet trade has historically been a serious threat to cotton-top tamarins. By the early 1970s, as many as 40,000 cotton-tops had been caught and exported from Colombia, with about 14,000 of those animals imported into the US (Mittermeier et al. 1994). This massive exportation of tamarins seriously reduced the wild population.

Potential solutions

Though cotton-top tamarins are now protected under Appendix I of CITES, and importation into the US has ceased, they are still being used in biomedical research. The captive population outnumbers the wild population and has been carefully maintained through selective captive breeding programs so that animals do not need to be taken from the wild to supplement captive populations (Savage 1997). At the present time, the captive populations are self-sustaining and one of the goals is that the captive populations may be sufficient enough to supply animals for reintroduction in Colombia in the future (Mittermeier et al. 1994).

Another facet of Proyecto Tití which has decreased hunting of wildlife is an innovative exchange program. Members of a community living close to the forest were able to exchange their slingshots, a common hunting implement, for stuffed cotton-top tamarin toys (Savage et al. 1997c). Plush stuffed animals are a rarity in this small village and interest in the exchange was very high. By retiring their slingshots, members of the community significantly decreased the amount of hunting and capture of wildlife for the pet trade, certainly benefiting the cotton-top tamarins in the nearby forest (Savage 1997). Programs like this that discourage hunting and wildlife capture and provide a commodity for local community members are important to increase awareness. They also are easily replicated in other areas and may be one part of the solution to decrease poaching of endangered species.

Threat: Natural Disasters

During periods of severe drought, pregnant cotton-top tamarins overwhelmingly fail to deliver viable offspring (Savage et al. 1996a). During one drought, none of the pregnant females in the study groups gave birth to viable infants. Environmental stress such as drought could have potentially harmful effects on small populations of cotton-top tamarins, though even after fetal loss, they can conceive again within the breeding season (Savage et al. 1996a).

Potential solutions

Intermittent severe droughts that lead to fetal loss cannot be solved or planned for but will likely not have enormous detrimental effects on the size of the cotton-top tamarin population because of their high fertility rates and ability to conceive more than once per year (Savage et al. 1996a; Achenbach & Snowdon 2002).

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

With offspring survivorship around 86% in the wild, cotton-top tamarins are well-equipped to maintain the size of their population if they have habitat in which to live (Savage et al. 1996a). As habitat disappears and becomes more fragmented, though, dispersal may be limited and offspring survivorship may decrease as inbreeding increases. The potential problems associated with inbreeding are particularly devastating in small communities and include inbreeding depression and genetic drift (Marsh 2003).

Threat: Human Disturbance

Civil disturbance by guerrilla fighters and paramilitary operations have actually resulted in positive results for the cotton-top tamarin population in some areas of Colombia. Because local people have been removed from their land by these rebels, fuelwood acquisition has ceased and they are not able to clear land for planting gardens. While these circumstances are very unfortunate for the victims of these paramilitary operations, cotton-top tamarins are benefiting through decreased pressure on their habitat (Defler et al. 2003). Generally speaking, guerrilla fighters and civil instability are bad for primates and other forest-dwelling animals because operations taking place primarily in the forests results in increased hunting pressure by fighters and displaced people. This is especially prevalent in Africa, but could also be the case in South American countries as well (see Coxe et al. 2000). Furthermore, areas governed by armed fighters are often used to cultivate crops of illegal drugs, requiring that forest is cleared and habitat is destroyed. As the market for these drugs continues to be lucrative both within Colombia and abroad, economic incentives to plant these types of crops persists and larger amounts of land will be converted to maintain the supply (Álvarez 2002).

Potential Solutions

Instability due to civil unrest has prevented researchers from maintaining their presence in some areas of the cotton-top tamarin’s range. Satellite imaging of unstable areas has continued, allowing researchers to remotely collect data on forest destruction and fragmentation. Work on cotton-top tamarins continues in safer regions of Colombia that have populations (Defler et al. 2003).

Decreasing the demand for illegal drugs is an ongoing battle in the United States and elsewhere. Until demand decreases, incentives will continue to exist to clear forest and grow drugs.

Links to other information about cotton-top tamarin conservation: /cottontop/SSP/Enghome.htm


Cotton-top tamarins have been used in biomedical research because they are especially useful as models for the study of Epstein-Barr virus, colitis, and colon cancer (Mittermeier et al. 1994). In captivity, as many as half of the adult cotton-top tamarins spontaneously develop colitis, characterized by prolonged, repeated bouts of diarrhea, severe weight loss and even death (King et al. 1993). This type of colitis is linked to an increased risk of developing a certain type of colon cancer, colonic adenocarcinoma (Clapp et al. 1993). Since these diseases affect humans, cotton-top tamarins have been studied extensively in captivity to understand the causes of these diseases and how they relate to one another, as well seeking potential cures (Clapp et al. 1993).





Content last modified: May 18, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Anne Savage.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 May 18. Primate Factsheets: Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2020 July 30.

The following references were used in the writing of this factsheet. To find current references for Saguinus oedipus, search PrimateLit.


Achenbach GG, Snowdon CT. 2002. Costs of caregiving: weight loss in captive adult male cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) following the birth of infants. Int J Primatol 23(1): 179-89.

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Bardi M, Petto AJ, Lee-Parritz DE. 2001. Parental failure in captive cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus). Am J Primatol 54(3): 159-69.

Cotton top tamarin artwork
Saguinus oedipus

Clapp NK, Henke MA, Hansard RM, Carson RL, Adams LJ, Nardi RV. 1993. Natural history, time course, and pathogenesis of idiopathic colitis in cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus). In: Clapp NK, editor. A primate model for the study of colitis and colonic carcinoma: the cotton-top tamarin Saguinus oedipus. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Pr. p 83-99.

Coxe S, Rosen N, Miller P, Seal U, editors. Bonobo conservation assessment workshop final report; 1999 Nov 21-22; Inuyama, Japan. Apple Valley (MN): IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. 51 p.

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Content last modified: May 18, 2005



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