Animal Spotlight: Cottontop Tamarin



  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Primates
  • Family: Callitrichidae
  • Genus: Saguinus
  • Species: oedipus
  • Other Names: Cotton-headed tamarin, white-plumed bare-faced tamarin, crested tamarin
  • Average Male Weight: 14.5 ounces (411 g)
  • Average Female Weight: 15.2 ounces (430 g)
  • Average Height: 9.13 inches (232 mm)
  • Average Life Span in the Wild: 13.5 years

One of the three Amazonian tamarin species, the cottontop tamarin is a small species of monkey found in the forests of South America, from Costa Rica to northwestern Colombia. Named for its elegant white fur that flows over it’s head and shoulders, this primate spends the majority of its life in the trees.

It has been found in a variety of habitats from humid wetland tropical forest, to moist woodland forest, and dry thorn forest savannah. They are also found in secondary growth forest. Tropical forests have multiple vertical layers of growth, and cottontop tamarins will utilize multiple layers, but prefer the lower vertical levels. They are most commonly found in trees from 1300 ft to 4900 ft (400 m to 1500 m), but can be seen on the ground, foraging among leaf litter.

Physical Appearance:

These New World monkeys are small-bodied, easily recognized by the characteristic fan of long, white hair on their heads. Among the tamarin species, cottontop tamarins are categorized in the bare-face group. For their black-skinned face, they have very fine hair, making their faces appear naked.

They have mottled gray-brown shoulders, back, and rump while their stomach and limbs are white. On the back of their thighs and the base of their tails, these monkeys have reddish-brown hair. The rest of the tail is a mix of gray, brown, and black.

Credit: Lincoln Park Zoo

Like marmosets and other tamarins, the cottontop tamarin has claw-like nails that resemble a squirrel’s rather than the flat nails characteristics of other primates. The claw-like nails allow them to climb, run, and leap through trees.

The forelimbs of the cottontop tamarin are shorter than the hind limbs. And unlike other monkeys, the thumb of the cottontop tamarin is not opposable. Their long tail helps with balance.

Males and females look the same in appearance, as do the young.


As an omnivorous animal, the cottontop tamarin eats both plants and other animals in order to survive. Fruits, insects, and plants make up the majority of its diet. It has also been reported eating small rodents, reptiles, eggs, and tree sap to supplement the diet.

It is important for tamarins to have a high-quality, high-energy diet due to their small body size, limited gut volume, and rapid rate of food passage. The plant material eaten is a source of minerals, water, and other nutrients though tamarins but are primarily dependent on insects and plants.

Foraging typically occurs in the middle layer of the canopy from 16 to 49 feet (5 to 15 meters). While they tend to select feeding sites because of its fruit availability, they will also hunt for insects and utilize gum in the vicinity.


The cottontop tamarin is a diurnal primate, meaning that it is most active during the day, resting in the safety of the treetops during the night.

They are very sociable animals, inhabiting their territory (seven to ten hectares) with a troop. Each troop generally has between two to fourteen members, the average being seven, and are led by the eldest females. Cottontop tamarin troops are predominantly composed of male members. 

cotton-top-tamarin-by-william-t-hornadayThe typical daily routine of cottontops involve an alternating pattern of foraging, resting,  and traveling. They sleep in a group and start their day together an hour and 20 minutes after dawn. The troop follows established routes to find available foods, covering approximately a mile (or 1.7 km) of territory per day.

After an hour of foraging, they begin to rest for a few minutes of time, either by stretching out on a branch or grooming within a social group. They continue to travel and forage throughout the day, taking increasingly longer resting periods. In the late afternoon, they begin to travel more quickly until they reach a designated sleeping tree. These trees typically have foliage cover such as broad leaves and vines that the cottontop tamarins prefer.

These tamarins are territorial, scent marking their home ranges and defending them with showy confrontations, like fluffing up their fur and making loud calls.

In a troop, only one female breeds. Reproduction in other females is suppressed by the behavioral domination of the reproductive female, and by the effects of her pheromones and genital gland scent.

Breeding season is between the months of April and July, when the dominate female gives birth after a four to five month gestation period. The offspring are born helpless. Male cottontop tamarins carry and groom infants more than the females do. This cooperative breeding system, unique among primates, allows the female more time to forage and feed because lactation and feeding the young demands a great amount of energy.

The co-operative care of the group is key to the infant’s development, for they become independent after only two months. This unique breeding system is also essential as it enables tamarins to maintain a high reproductive rate.

Infant cottontop tamarins become mobile at 2 to 5 weeks and are fully weaned at 15 to 25 weeks. They reach sexual maturity at about 2 years of age.


Found in northern Colombia (Credit: Potter Park Zoo)

Listed as ‘critically endangered’ by IUCN, cottontop tamarins are found in the small area of northwest Colombia bound by the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers and the Atlantic coast. Although territory past this range has been historically suitable, loss of habitat has left the species with small fragmented parks and reserves within this area.

Almost 75% of their natural habitat was lost due to deforestation, the main reason for the severe decline in the cottontop tamarin population, for roads, agriculture, food, and housing. Another major threat is also being captured and illegally sold as pets.

Populations in the past have also suffered from the export of significant numbers for biomedical research in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Approximately 20,000-30,000 individuals were exported to the United States for biomedical research. There are now 1,800 captive cottontop tamarins; 64% are found in research laboratories.

The three protected areas where they reside have lost a significant portion of their forests and their tamarin populations. Paramillo National Park has lost approximately 42% of its original forested habitat while Montes de Maria and Los Colorados National Parks lost 70% and 71% respectively. Outside of these three protected area, a population of cottontop tamarins were also introduced to Tayrona National Natural Park in 1974.

The cottontop tamarin has been legally protected in Colombia since 1969. Export for the pet trade, zoos, and biomedical research was banned in 1974. However, its numbers (estimated between) have continued to dwindle away. They continue to suffer from the pressure of the growing local populations to extract resources or clear areas for agricultural activities. It is essential that immediate conservation measure are implemented.

Many Colombians who live near the cottontops’ forest home do not know that these monkeys, known locally as “titís”, are endangered.

Proyecto Tití, a conservation programme for the species in Colombia established in 1987, aims to change this by providing information about the monkey alongside employment opportunities that enable locals to protect the forest and the tamarins. It was originally created to begin the first long-term field study on understanding the factors influencing reproductive strategies. However, it quickly grew into a comprehensive conservation program including educational efforts, capacity building, training Colombian students, development of economic alternatives, and the development of an agricultural training programme to decrease the pressure on the forest by local communities.

Credit: Animal Unique Blog

Interesting Facts:

  • Cottontop tamarins primarily give birth to non-identical twins
  • Oldest recorded cottontop tamarin lived to be 24 years old in captivity
  • When coming into contact with other groups, instead of using physical contact, they will threaten the other group by showing their rear ends as a territorial display
  • They have over 30 calls, including chirps, shrill calls, squeaks, and other bird-like calls, including specific calls associated with food preferences.
  • When alarmed or excited, cottontop tamarins raise the hair on the crown of their head and stand up tall to make themselves look bigger.
  • They are highly important seed dispersers in tropical ecosystems. They ingest seeds larger than those consumed by much larger species of primates. On function of this behavior is to dislodge and expel intestinal parasites from their digestive tracts.
  • Though they repeatedly use trees within their home range for sleeping sites, they do not use the same tree on consecutive nights.
  • Some of the main predators of cottontop tamarins include raptors, mustelids, felids, and snakes.
  • Research suggests that smaller males are often preferred mating partners by the females as they are more nimble in the forest and therefore better food gatherers.

References + For More Reading

Cotton-top Tamarin: Saguinus oedipus

Cottontop Tamarin Fact Sheet

Potter Park Zoo: Cotton-Top Tamarin

Wildlife Conservation Network: Cottontop Tamarin

Arkive: Cotton-Headed Tamarin

IUCN: Saguinus oedipus


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