Tamarin, Cotton-top

Saguinus oedipus

The head with a long sagittal crest (a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the midline of the top of the skull), white hairs from forehead to nape flowing over the shoulders; back is brown, and the underparts, arms and legs are whitish-yellow. Rump and inner thighs are reddish-orange.  It is one of the bare-faced tamarins because of the lack of facial hair. Lower canine teeth are longer than incisors, so it seems as if it has small tusks. It is about the size of a squirrel and weighs 10 -18 oz (283 – 510 g). Males are slightly larger than females. Head-body length of this species is 6.7 in. (17 cm) and tail length is 9.8 in. (25 cm).  Forelimbs are shorter than the hind limbs. The thumb is not opposable and the tail is not prehensile. All the finger and toe nails are like claws except for the big toe which has a flat nail.








Costa Rica south to northern Colombia.


Tropical forest edges and secondary forests

Life Expectancy

In the wild 13 – 16 years; in captivity as high as 25 years

Sexual Maturity

12 – 15 months


In the wild they eat insects, ripe fruit, seeds, nectar, gum from trees, tender vegetation, spiders, small vertebrates, bird eggs, mice, frogs, birds and lizards; in the Zoo they are fed a scientifically developed, commercially available primate food, assorted fruits and vegetables, and mealworms.


IUCN – Critically Endangered; CITES – Appendix I


It moves from tree to tree by running or walking quadrupedally along horizontal branches and leaping as much as 9.8 ft (3 m) between branches. It moves with quick, jerky movements. It is very alert and active. The cotton-top tamarin is most active between sunrise and sunset (diurnal); it spends a large portion of its activity time foraging for animal prey, searching through leaves and along branches, and peering and reaching into holes and crevices. It sleeps in broad tree forks or cavities. When alarmed or excited, cotton-top tamarins raise the hair on the crown of their head and stand up tall to make themselves look bigger. Groups of cotton-top tamarins usually include 3–9 individuals. Group members are not necessarily all related. In addition to a dominant mated pair and their young, there may be transient individuals, probably young animals of both sexes. The home ranges of adjacent groups overlap. All group members contribute to infant care. Some carry the young and giving them food. Others play with them or are watching out for predators. In this way, young adults (sub-adults) gain valuable experience by practicing maternal/paternal skills before having young of their own. Cotton-top tamarin females have an estrous cycle of 15 days. Like most tamarins, the cotton top usually gives birth to non-identical twins, although single births and triplets happen occasionally. Tamarins reproduce year ‘round with a gestation of 183 days. Both parents care for the young. Newborns have a coat of short hair, are helpless but able to cling tightly to the body of the mother or father by using their hands and feet. The father carries the young, but transfers them to the mother at feeding time. Weaning begins at four to five weeks. The cotton-top tamarin will mark territory with scent by sliding its rear or by rubbing the scent on the bottom of its feet on features throughout the territory. When coming into contact with other groups, instead of physical contact cotton-tops threaten the other group by showing its rear as a territorial display. The cotton-top tamarin vocalizes with birdlike whistles, soft chirping sounds, high-pitched trilling and staccato calls. Researchers say its repertoire of 38 distinct sounds is unusually sophisticated, conforming to grammatical rules and able to express curiosity, fear, dismay, playfulness, warnings, joy and calls to young. It has loud territorial songs as well as songs when it is excited. A “threat face” consists of lowering the forehead until it forms a bulge which almost covers the eyes; the lips are pushed forward and the head and neck crests are erected. This apparently is sufficient since no other body language is used.


Claw-like nails help it to grip branches, since its small size and non-opposable fingers make encircling difficult. Long limbs and a long tail make it suited for jumping. 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 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. 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 (insects such as grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and cockroaches), 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).

Special Interests

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).


Saguinus means “like a squirrel monkey,” and oedipus literally means “swollen-footed.” But of course we think of Oedipus, too, and the complex named after him.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 20,000-30,000 individuals were exported to the United States for biomedical research (Hernández-Camacho and Cooper 1976). Up to the 1980s, the cotton-top tamarin was thought to occur from Costa Rica south to northern Colombia. By 1992 it could be found only in northern Colombia. Significant exports for biomedical research contributed to the cotton-top tamarin’s decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Currently, deforestation is the greatest threat. It has been legally protected in Colombia since 1969. A major threat in the past was export for the pet trade, zoos and biomedical research, but export was banned in 1974. Listed on CITES as Appendix I. Proyecto Tití, a conservation program for the cotton-top tamarin in Colombia, was established in 1987 to begin the first long-term field study on this species in collaboration with Colombian biologists, educators, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and government authorities (INDERENA, Ministerio del Medio Ambiente) (Savage 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997; Savage et al. 1996a,b, 1997, 2001a,b). Initial research focused on understanding the factors influencing reproductive strategies of cotton-top tamarins, but 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 program to decrease the pressure on the forest by local communities (Savage and Giraldo 1990; Savage et al. 1990, 1996, 1997). In addition to the studies of cotton-top tamarins in the field, there has been a major and comprehensive assessment of the remaining habitat within the historic distribution of the cotton-top tamarin in Colombia, along with surveys to assess population numbers remaining. This information has provided important insights into the long-term viability of this population given the current rate of habitat destruction. Current population estimates for the species are 6,000 individuals (approximately 2,000 mature individuals).

Jacksonville Zoo History

The Jacksonville Zoo exhibited this tamarin species from 1973 to 1980, and since 2006. We have successfully bred this species here.


Range of the Jaguar