Cotton-Top Tamarin

Tropical Rainforest

Location in Zoo

Tropical Rainforest
1 pound
1 pound

18 months
18 months

Geographic Range

Northwest Colombia

Scientific Information

Scientific Name:
Saguinus oedipus

Lifestyle and Lifespan

Activity Time Frame:
Sexual Dimorphism:
Lifespan in the Wild:
13 years
Lifespan in Captivity:
24 years


Critically Endangered
Habitat Loss


Tamarins are a New World monkey, about the size of a squirrel making them one of the smallest primates. They are in the same family as the marmoset. Callitrichids are unique in the New World monkeys because of their modified claw in place of a nail and having three molars in their jaw on each side instead of two.

Species Specifics

The cotton-top is strikingly marked with the long back fur dark brown, the fur on the underside pure white and the face black with a collar of rufous fur. The common name comes from the white crest which runs laterally across the head from ear to ear. Forelimbs are shorter than the hind limbs.

Physical Characteristics

Their claw-like nails help them to climb trees, even with their very small fingers. Their thumb is not opposable and neither is their tail prehensile.



Tropical forests, open woodlands, secondary growth forests


A group's territory is generally 15-25 acres. Cotton-top tamarins will use the whole vertical length of the forest's canopy but they are generally found in the lower vertical levels. Very rarely, they will go to the forest floor to forage.


A cotton-top tamarin's diet must be efficient and high energy because their small bodies process food very quickly. Their primary diet components are insects, fruits, plant exudates (such as sap and gums) and nectar. Other foods include some tender vegetation, spiders, small vertebrates, and birds' eggs. Mice, frogs, birds and such are skillfully killed by a quick head bite, a learned behavior.

Ecological Web

Cotton-top tamarins are important in seed dispersal in forests. They consume very large seeds (larger than even chimpanzees or baboons will consume) which pass through their system and germinate more easily than non-consumed seeds. This action may also forcibly remove internal parasites from the cotton-top tamarin's digestive tract.

Activity and Behavior

Activity Pattern

Cotton-top tamarins seem to sleep in later than other similar primates. This may lead to less competition during foraging.


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 not usually physical contact between members of the different groups though there may be threat displays, such as showing genitals.

Social Behavior

Cotton-top tamarins live in groups of 3-9 tamarins with one bonded pair dominant over the others. Groups sometimes are as large as 19 individuals. They are very territorial with clearly defined boundaries. Cotton-top tamarins have a sophisticated repertory of 38 sounds, conforming to grammatical rules and able to express curiosity, fear, playfulness, warnings, etc.

Reproductive Behavior

Males and other adults will assist with birth and offspring care. Non-dominant females seem to put off ovulation while caring for other female's offspring. They are very cooperative and pacifist. Non-dominant will suppress their fertility until the social structure supports it, even if they are sexually mature. They will not enter estrus until it suits the group's social structure. Estrus lasts about 15.5 days however there are no physical signs of it. Parental care is a learned behavior which may explain that the wild infant survival rate at 86% survival is higher than in captivity.


Mothers have two un-identical offspring, born between January and June. Unrelated adults will help to feed and care for young. The father and sometimes other adults assist in birth and carry the offspring, transferring it back to the mother at feeding time. The mother needs help, since this small animal gives birth to twins weighing about 25% of her body weight. At 4 weeks the young will accept soft food in addition to milk.



Listed at Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Listed on Appendix II of CITES.


In the 1960s and 1970s, up to 30,000 cotton-top tamarins were imported into the United States for medical testing because they are the only other species who can spontaneously develop colon cancer. The population has dropped 80% over the last 18 years which equates to 3 generations. This is mostly due to habitat loss.

Current Threats

Our Role

Our partner Proyecto Titi works to save habitat, curb the illegal pet trade, and educate the community. They are currently working to create a wildlife corridor to connect some remaining tamarin habitats.

How You Can Help

Fascinating Facts

To appear threatening, cotton-top tamarins will push their foreheads down to form a bulge that almost covers their eyes, push their lips forward, and raise their head and neck crests.

Cotton-top tamarin groups will choose a new tree to sleep in each night. By moving locations they may be avoiding nocturnal predators.