Cotton-top Tamarin
© Suzi Eszterhas

Cotton-top Tamarin and Offspringt
© Suzi Eszterhas

Cotton-top Tamarin Family Group
© Suzi Eszterhas

Cotton-top Tamarins


The cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) is one of the most endangered primates in the world.  More than 20,000-40,000 cotton-top tamarins were exported from Colombia to the United States (Hernadez-Camacho & Cooper, 1976) for use in biomedical research and in 1973 cotton-tops were declared Endangered and CITES rules and regulations were evoked to minimize the number of animals captured from the wild for export.  While living in captive colonies, cotton-top tamarins were found to spontaneously develop colonic adenocarcinoma and served as the primary non-human primate model for studies of this disease (Clapp, 1993). However, today many of the large biomedical colonies of cotton-top tamarins have been disbanded and the majority of cotton-top tamarins in managed care remain in zoological institutions, small university colonies, private sanctuaries and in private collections.  



Cotton-top tamarins are found only in the northern region of Colombia in tropical dry forests. Today the greatest threat to the survival of the cotton-top tamarin is deforestation of their tropical forest habitat for agriculture, mining, illegal logging and urban expansion. Habitat destruction in Colombia continues to occur at an alarming rate. From 2013-2018, 98% of the tree cover loss in Colombia occurred within natural forests resulting in a 5% decrease in forests since 2000 (Global Forest Watch, 2019). Greatest tree cover loss occurred in the departments of Atlántico and Bolivar, some of the most vulnerable forest habitat where cotton-tops are found.  

In addition to on-going forest destruction, cotton-tops are threatened by the illegal capture for the pet trade. It is very common to see cotton-tops kept in poor conditions as a family pet in rural communities in Colombia. Most people do not understand the impact of having a cotton-top tamarin as a pet to the long-term survival of the wild population, so Proyecto Tití works to educate people about appropriate animals as pets. 

Proyecto Tití conducted a population census in 2005-2006 to examine the status of the wild population. We were very distressed to learn that there were less than 7,500 cotton-tops remaining. Based on the census results and the continued rate of habitat destruction in Colombia, we petitioned to place cotton-top tamarins on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered in 2008. In 2012, we conducted an additional population census and the estimated population change between surveys was -7% (a decline of approximately 1.3% per year) suggesting a relatively stable population. We also recorded little change in the amount of suitable habitat for cotton-top tamarins between sample periods.  We attribute this relatively stable population to the increased conservation efforts of conservation organizations and the Colombian government.


Cotton-top tamarins have an extremely limited distribution, occurring in the tropical forests of northwestern Colombia between the Atrato River and the Magdalena River, in the departments of Atlántico, Sucre, Cordoba, western Bolivar, northwestern Antioquia, and northeastern Choco, from sea level up to 1500 m. 

Cotton-top tamarins live in groups ranging in size from 2-10 individuals. Most groups contain a breeding pair with their offspring. Groups of cotton-tops remain relatively stable with siblings dispersing.  Unrelated adult animals are often repelled from entering established groups, however, when immigrant adults enter the group, they will often compete with the resident same-sex adult and/or assume a breeding position. If this happens, groups typically become less stable and will divide or evict various individuals from the group.  Learn more about how cotton-tops live in the wild by visiting our field research tab. 

Female cotton-top tamarin typically give birth to twins each year. Parental care is shared in cotton-top families, with infants carried on the backs of their caregivers for the first 4 months. As infants mature, they are carried less and adults begin to share solid food as weaning progresses. Learn more about infant care and development.

Cotton-top tamarins eat primarily fruit, but will also consume insects, sap, and nectar. Their diet is highly seasonal, correlating with the rainy season when most trees are fruiting. When fruit is scarce, the proportion of sap, 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 forest. Learn more about the cotton-top tamarin's diet.

Cotton-top tamarins can produce over 38 different vocalizations! They use these vocalizations to communicate with one another, to defend their territory from neighboring groups, to signal the presence of food, and more! To see and hear a complete list of cotton-top tamarin vocalizations, view our publications page.
Cotton-top Tamarin Distribution Map
© NASA DEVELOP National Program’s University of Georgia team

Cotton-top Tamarin Eating Berries
© Suzi Eszterhas