About Cotton-top Tamarins

© Lisa Hoffner

The cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) is one of the most endangered primates in the world. The species was declared endangered in 1973 following the exportation of 20,000-40,000 tamarins to the United States for use in biomedical research. In the late 1970s and throughout much of the 1980s, cotton-top tamarins were found to spontaneously develop colonic adenocarcinoma. They served as the primary model for in-depth studies of this disease throughout much of this decade. Today the greatest threat to the survival of the cotton-top tamarin is deforestation for agriculture, fuel, and housing, in addition to collection for the local pet trade in Colombia. Occurrences of the illegal trade of cotton-tops still continues throughout much of the world despite international laws condemning such activity.

A census was conducted in 2005-2006 examining the status of the wild population of cotton-top tamarins. Results of the census indicated that the cotton-top tamarin has been severely impacted by the significant habitat destruction that has occurred throughout its range in Colombia. The results of the census in addition to the challenges with habitat destruction, resulted in the IUCN Primate Specialist Group recommending the classification of cotton-top tamarins be changed to Critically Endangered in 2008.


About the size of a squirrel, the cotton-top tamarin is a New World primate that is noted for its tuft of white hair. This large white poof atop its head gives the cotton-top tamarin its most appropriate name. The face of the cotton-top tamarin is black and the temples and sides of its head are covered with short silvery hairs. The face is adorned with a grayish fringe across the muzzle and reaches to each corner of its mouth. There is a wedge-shaped white crest on the monkey's forehead leading into its tuft of white hair atop its head. The dorsal surface of the body is primarily black or brown, while the underparts of the body, arms, and legs are predominantly white. Males and females weight about the same, at approximately 404-417 g in the wild to 565-700 g in captivity. Knee-to-heel length (M=7.26 cm) and head to tail length (M=23.07 cm) appear to be similar for both wild and captive cotton-top tamarins.


Their diet is highly seasonal, correlating with the rainy season when most trees are fruiting. When fruit is scarce, the proportion of gums, nectar, and insects in the diet increases. With fruit making up the largest portion of the diet, cotton-top tamarins may be important seed dispersal agents for trees in the rainforest. To learn more about the cotton-top tamarin's diet, visit our field research tab.


Cotton-top tamarins can produce over 38 different vocalizations! They use these vocalizations to communicate to their family group, to defend their territory from neighboring family groups, to talk about food, and more! To see and hear a complete list of cotton-top tamarin vocalizations, view our field research tab.

Now you can learn how to “speak like a tamarin” through the TED-ed Original lesson: “How to Speak Monkey: The Language of Cotton-top Tamarins!  The lesson was created as part of collaboration between Proyecto Tití and the creative animators at TED-ed.  As part of this unique video lesson, viewers follow the day in the life of Shakira, a female cotton-top tamarin, as she uses a variety of chirps and whistles to chat with her family, search for food, and alert against potential nearby predators.  You can view the complete lesson plan and supplementary educational materials on ed.ted.com.  We are very grateful to TED-ed for helping us to share the fascinating world of cotton-top tamarins with the TED-ed community and audience!

Cotton-top Tamarin Distribution Map
© NASA DEVELOP National Program’s University of Georgia team


Roads and agriculture threaten the remaining habitat of the cotton-top tamarin. Cotton-top tamarins have an extremely limited distribution, occurring in northwestern Colombia between the Atrato River and the Magdalena River, in the Departments of Atlantico, Sucre, Cordoba, western Bolivar, northwestern Antiquoia, and northeastern Choco, from sea level up to 1500 meters. The tamarins are found in regions of humid tropical forest at an elevation ranging from 200-1000 m, where the annual rainfall is between 2000-4000 mm. Populations also occur in dry tropical forest with low seasonal rainfall.

Significant advances have been made in developing self-sustaining captive breeding populations in both laboratories and zoos. Most laboratory facilities have reduced their populations significantly in the last 10 years, however, the U.S. zoo population has continued to thrive. Through the efforts of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Species Survival Plan more than 300 cotton-top tamarins are cooperatively managed in more than 80 U.S. zoos.