Primate Info Net Banner Wisconsin PRC Logo

Cotton-top tamarin
Saguinus oedipus

Conservation status:
Critically endangered

Life span: 13.5 years
Total population: 1800 (captive), 6000 (wild)
Regions: Colombia
Gestation: 6 months (183 days)
Height: 232 mm (M & F)
Weight: 411 g (M), 430 g (F)

Switch Metric <-> English


Suborder: Haplorrhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Cebidae
Subfamily: Callitrichinae
Genus: Saguinus
Species: S. oedipus

Other names: cotton-headed tamarin or white-plumed bare-face tamarin; paryk-pinché (Danish); gewone pincheaap (Dutch); valkotöyhtötamariini (Finnish); tamarin d'Oedipe, tamarin à perruque, or tamarin pinché (French); lisztäffchen (German); bichichi, mono tití cabeciblanco, tití, titis, tití blanco, tití leoncito, or tití pielroja (Spanish); bomullshuvudtamarin or pinché (Swedish)


These New World monkeys are small-bodied and easily recognized by the characteristic fan of long, white hair on their heads. They have very fine hair on their black-skinned faces such that their faces appear naked. Tamarins are characterized by their facial appearances and are divided into three groups: the hairy-face, mottled-face, and bare-face groups. Cotton-top tamarins are categorized in the bare-face group (Garber 1993). They have mottled gray-brown shoulders, back, and rump while their stomach and limbs are white. They have reddish-brown hair on the back of their thighs and base of their tail but the rest of the tail is gray-brown-black (Rowe 1996; Groves 2001). Cotton-top tamarins are not sexually dimorphic and the average height of both males and females is 232 mm (9.13 in) (Rowe 1996). Wild males and females weigh between 410 and 450 g (14.5 and 15.9 oz) but average 416.5 g (14.7 oz), while captive cotton-top tamarins are significantly heavier and weigh, on average, 565.7 g (19.9 oz) (Savage 1990).

Saguinus oedipus
Photo: Richard Frazier

The most common modes of locomotion for cotton-top tamarins include quadrupedal running, bounding, or galloping along medium to small branches as well as clinging and leaping between trees on thin or small branches (Rowe 1996; Kinzey 1997). Members of the subfamily Callitrichinae have claw-like nails (called tegulae) that resemble a squirrel's rather than the flat nails (called ungulae) characteristic of other primates, including humans. These claw-like nails aid in clinging, running, and leaping through trees (Kinzey 1997). Cotton-top tamarins also exhibit the trait of primarily giving birth to non-identical twins, as is seen in other callitrichines (Rowe 1996).

Cotton-top tamarins live for an average of 13.5 years, but the oldest recorded cotton-top tamarin lived to be 24 years old in captivity (Rowe 1996; Savage pers. comm.).


Saguinus oedipus

Cotton-top tamarins are one of three Amazonian species of tamarin and are found in a small area of northwest Colombia in a range bound by the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers and the Atlantic coast (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Groves 2001). Though the overall area bound to the north by the Magdalena River and the west by the Cauca River has historically been suitable habitat for cotton-top tamarins, they are now only found in fragmented parks and reserves throughout this area. One of the strongholds of the remaining cotton-top tamarins is in Paramillo National Park, a 540 km² (208 mi²) park containing primary and secondary forest (Mast et al. 1993).

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).


Cotton-top tamarins are found in humid tropical forest, dry deciduous forest, and secondary growth forest (Hernández-Camacho & Cooper 1976; Snowdon & Soini 1988; Mast et al. 1993; Kinzey 1997). Tropical forests have multiple vertical layers of growth, from the short understory (less than 5 meters) to the tallest trees in the canopy (over 20 meters). Cotton-top tamarins use multiple layers of the tropical forests in which they are found, moving vertically between the understory and canopy, but preferentially utilizing the lower vertical levels of the forest. They are most commonly found in trees but can be seen on the ground, foraging among leaf litter (Snowdon & Soini 1988). These tamarins are also highly adaptable to secondary or remnant forest fringes or patches and can live in relatively disturbed habitats. They are found primarily at elevations below 1500 m (4921 ft), but rarely above 400 m (1312 ft) (Hernández-Camacho & Cooper 1976).

In the deciduous or dry forest parts of their range, rainfall is highly seasonal, with the dry season lasting from December to April and heavy rainfall from August to November. Annual average rainfall varies between 500 and 1000 mm (1.64 and 3.28 ft) and there are periods when the forest floor is flooded (Neyman 1977). In the humid rainforest where they are found, annual rainfall can be as high as 1300 mm (4.27 ft) (Mast et al. 1993).


Saguinus oedipus
Photo: Anne Savage

The primary components of cotton-top tamarin diet are insects, fruit, plant exudates, and nectar, but they have also been recorded eating reptiles and amphibians. It is important for tamarins to have a high-quality, high-energy diet because of their small-body size, limited gut volume, and rapid rate of food passage (Garber 1993). 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 (Callithrix species) 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 (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Kinzey 1997). Insectivory is also important in their ecology. Some insect-hunting techniques employed by cotton-top tamarins include stealth, turning over leaves, exploring crevices, pouncing, and moving rapidly to the ground to seize prey. Like foraging for other foods, hunting for insects is an individualistic behavior (Garber 1993). Foraging occurs in the middle layer of the canopy from five to 15 m (16 to 49 ft), and while cotton-top tamarins select a feeding site because of its fruit availability, they also hunt for insects and utilize gum in the vicinity (Neyman 1977). Cotton-top tamarins clearly compete for access to some foods with squirrels, other diurnal primate species, and various birds. They also may be competing for access to food resources with nocturnal fruit and insect-eating species including bats (Neyman 1977).

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, 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).

The typical daily routine of cotton-tops involves an alternating pattern of foraging, resting, and traveling. They sleep in a group and start their day about an hour and 20 minutes after dawn when the entire party leaves the sleeping tree at the same time. Cotton-top tamarins follow established routes to find available foods, moving between .12 and .24 (.07 and .15 mi) per hour and covering about 1.5 and 1.9 km (.93 and 1.18 mi) per day over home ranges of between .078 and .10 km² (.03 and .04 mi²) (Neyman 1977). After about an hour of foraging, they begin to rest for a few minutes at a time, either stretching out on a branch or grooming within the social group. They continue to travel and forage throughout the day, taking increasingly longer resting periods, the longest being around midday. In late afternoon, they begin to travel more quickly and more cohesively with limited foraging stops until they reach a sleeping tree (Neyman 1977). Cotton-top tamarins prefer to sleep in trees with some foliage cover such as broad leaves, vines, epiphytes, or lianas. They repeatedly use trees within their home range for sleeping sites, but do not generally use the same tree on consecutive nights (Savage 1990). By selectively choosing sleeping trees, getting a relatively late start to their day compared to other primates, and hastening foraging and traveling speed before dusk, cotton-top tamarins may be avoiding many crepuscular and nocturnal predators. Some of the main predators of cotton-top tamarins include raptors, mustelids, felids, and snakes (Snowdon & Soini 1988; Sussman 2000). Cotton-top tamarins are extremely vigilant, constantly scanning for potential predators above and around them and even in captivity can be observed stopping their activities to look around (Price 1992). In the wild, when the group rests during the day, one group member separates itself from the resting animals and remains vigilant, alarming the group through vocalizations if it detects danger (Savage 1990).

Content last modified: May 18, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Anne Savage.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 May 18. Primate Factsheets: Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <>. Accessed 2020 July 6.