Cotton-Top Tamarin

Cotton-Top Tamarin

[ Saguinus oedipus ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 7 to 12 inches
TAIL LENGTH: 10 to 17 inches

0.5 to 1.9 pounds 

WILD DIET: insects, small vertebrates, fruit, and other plant material
ZOO DIET: marmoset diet (a specially formulated food for small monkeys), steamed sweet potatoes, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, sunflower seeds, crickets, and mealworms
DISTRIBUTION: Northwestern Colombia
HABITAT: primarily large trees in tropical rain forests


A Colombian Treasure

A “shocking” appearance
With a shock of white hair sprouting from its head and over its shoulders, a cotton-top tamarin has a slightly “mad scientist” look about it. Small, intense eyes and a stern-looking brow on a dark, hairless face add to the effect. The rest of the cotton top’s look is fairly tamea brown coat on the back and a light colored underside, usually white or creme.

Contrary to what their wild look might suggest, cotton-top tamarins are very much on the social side, and offer little to fearunless you’re an insect in the rain forests of northern Colombia.

Being active, highly visible, and very vocal, cotton-top tamarins are easy to notice in a forest full of predators. Because a small primate would make a nice meal for lots of animals, cotton-top tamarins’ best defense is in their numbers. They live in family groups of six to ten individuals, all of whom are related. At the core of the group is an adult male and femalethe only breeding animals in the groupusually along with several generations of their offspring. A tamarin family group has lots of eyes on the lookout for the snakes and birds of prey that hunt them. When they see a predator, the tamarins let out an alarm call warning others of the danger. This kind of teamwork has other benefits as well...

Cooperative baby-sitting
...such as bringing up young tamarins. A family group of cotton-top tamarins is the definition of cooperation when it comes to raising infants. Everyone lends a hand. The breeding pair in a family group usually produces twins. The parents, brothers, and sisters all take turns carrying the young. Adults, brothers, and sisters all share food with the babies as well. When the family group is on the move, infants cling to an adult’s back, securely anchored to their caregiver’s fur. Sometimes one adult carries both babies at once.

Not all tamarins are alike
There are more than 20 species of tamarins (and their close relatives, marmosets), with a lot of variety in fur and coloration, especially on the head and face. They all have long tails, soft coats, and weigh less than two pounds. The variety among them is in the fur on their face and head. There are tamarins with long manes, droopy moustaches, and all manner of protruding tufts and ridges of fur. These elaborate facial adonments enhance communication and recognition among tamarins.

Symbol of conservation in Colombia
Cotton-top tamarins live only in Colombia, a country in northern South America. As an endangered animal, they’ve become a symbol of conservation for the country. A nationwide education program uses the tamarins’ plight to spread the word about conserving rain forests. Through an education program, Colombian and U.S. students exchange information about tamarins, rain forests, and other conservation topics.

Cotton-top tamarins at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) program for cotton-top tamarins. The SSP works to breed genetically healthy zoo populations of tamarins, and to save valuable tamarin habitat through education efforts.

You can see cotton-top tamarins at Brookfield Zoo’s Tropic World: South America.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society