AZA Species Survival Plan Profile

The Cotton-Top Tamarin

Managing Populations in Captivity and Creating Community Concern in Colombia

By: Anne Savage

The cotton-top tamarin is an endangered New World primate endemic to Colombia. Although cotton-top tamarins have been maintained in zoos and research institutions for several decades, there were no attempts made to manage the captive population to maximize genetic diversity and behavioral competency. Thus, the mission of the Cotton-top Tamarin SSP is to develop an effective captive management plan and support conservation education, research, and training programs in the U.S. and in Colombia to ensure the survival of this species in its native habitat.

The Cotton-top Tamarin SSP supports the ongoing efforts of Proyecto Titi (Savage, In press) a comprehensive in situ program in Colombia. Established in 1987, this international, collaborative program combines field research and effective scientific assessment of habitats, as well as community programs that involve local inhabitants in culturally relevant, action-based programs. Making the conservation of natural habitats and resources economically feasible for local communities is of primary importance in this program. Creating a caring, informed community, as well as economic incentives for conservation, will result not only in the survival of the cotton-top tamarin, but also the native flora and fauna of Colombia. Our goal therefore, is to use the cotton-top tamarin as the flagship species for the conservation of Colombia's natural resources.

Captive Management

The Cotton-top Tamarin SSP population has retained 98% of the wild gene diversity. This large amount of gene diversity results primarily from the 68 founders which produced the majority of the present population.

The genetic goal of the Cotton-top Tamarin SSP will be to maintain 90% gene diversity for a period of 100 years. Recognizing that this represents only the equivalent of five unrelated, non inbred animals, the SSP will attempt to keep gene diversity above 95% as long as possible. These goals will be challenging given the unique social structure of the cotton-top tamarin which makes extension of the generation time and maximization of the effective population size difficult. As long-term effective population size will be compromised further by tamarins that are unable to raise and care for their own offspring, it is critical that hand-rearing of cotton-top tamarins be avoided. While this is a difficult decision for zoo and aquarium managers and keepers, it is in the best long-term interest of the cotton-top population. At present, more than one-third of the current captive population does not have the appropriate social skills required for successful rearing of their offspring. This has serious implications for the long-term management of the population.

Given the number of animals in the research community, we will actively pursue the possibility of incorporating unrelated animals or their descendants from this population. Thus, it appears likely that with careful management of our existing zoo population, as well as collaborating with the research/private community, we will be able to meet optimum genetic goals.

Field Studies

We have developed new field techniques for identifying and long-term monitoring of cotton-top tamarins (Savage et al., 1993). The ease of following groups has allowed us to collect valuable information on the social behavior, infant development, feeding ecology and habitat use of this highly endangered species (Savage et al., In press; Savage et al., 1996). We have begun studies in collaboration with Drs. Bill Lasley and Susan Shideler of the University of California-Davis to examine the reproductive endocrinology of wild tamarins and studies of population genetics with Dr. Christopher Faulkes of the Zoological Society of London's Institute of Zoology (see also Gyllensten et al., 1994).

Our studies have also been useful in assisting in the long-term management of captive tamarins. We have begun a study examining natural circulating levels of Vitamin D3 of wild tamarins (Power et al., In review). This information will be useful as we continue to modify the diets of captive tamarins.

Public Awareness

For conservation education efforts to be effective in Colombia, support and interest must be forthcoming from the local population. In 1988, we conducted a survey of the local school children near our study site to assess the communities' perception of the conservation needs of the area. We found that many students had a variety of myths and misconceptions about the forest and the wildlife of the area. Approximately 70% of the high school students had never visited the forest yet it is only 4 km away from their village. Another disturbing fact was that over 90% of the students had no idea that the cotton-top tamarin was endemic to Colombia and not found in other countries in South America (Savage et al., 1989).

To increase public awareness and create an interest in our program we developed several community programs for the local villages. We distributed t-shirts produced by Conservation International and posters of cotton-top tamarins created and produced by Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and Penscynor Wildlife Park.

As support for our program grew, we were able to obtain a small grant from the Captive Breeding Specialist Group and matching funds from a local paint supplier in Colombia, so that the children of the village could "advertise" conservation to all that passed by. The children wanted to depict "Man and Nature Living Together in Harmony" and painted various scenes on their school walls. The project used older students as "mentors" to assist in the actual drawing of the scenes and the younger children to "paint" the scenes. The international sign for "0" was used to encourage people not to hunt wildlife with sling shots.

Reinforcing our "no sling shot" motto we encouraged villagers to trade in their sling shots for stuffed cotton-top tamarin toys. Since toys are a prized possession for most young people in the village, we were remarkably successful in generating support for this program. But most important, the hunting of wildlife for the pet trade has significantly decreased in the village.

Conservation Education Programs

Building on local support, we have developed several classroom and field activities that have been very successful in increasing student awareness and interest in local conservation activities. Our program aims to reach all students in the local village, and activities are designed to meet the needs of elementary, junior and senior high school students. These activities have ranged from classroom activities for elementary school children to a field biology training program for high school students (Savage, In press). Building upon the students' continued interest in addressing pressing problems in conservation, we developed an international exchange of information between middle school students in Colombia and Rhode Island. We have also focused on sustaining viable watersheds, which has led to a unique opportunity for students to exchange information with one another and participate in the first annual "Waters of our World conference." By expanding our program to include preserving natural resources, students are able to experience the delicate balance of the ecosystem that we are truing to protect not only for the cotton-top tamarins but for future generations of Colombians.

Developing Alternatives to Forest Destruction

Given the dramatic rate of forest destruction for human and agricultural consumption, it is critical that programs are developed to reduce the dependency on non-sustainable forest products. Since the majority of families in rural communities cook over an open fire, we modified a traditional method of cooking using a binde (Savage, In press). By redesigning the binde so that it functions like a small cook stove, significantly less wood is consumed per day than cooking over an open fire. Other materials such as corn cobs, husks, and dried plant material can be burned producing less smoke, thereby reducing the human health risk. Community support for this project has been tremendous, since there is direct economic benefits from using this method. Instead of collecting or purchasing large quantities of fire wood, members of the community using bindes have significantly decreased their consumption for forest products.


Proyecto Titi is a multi-national program that can serve as a model for the development of effective conservation programs in Latin America. Incorporating scientific studies with community action programs has resulted in many Colombians taking a vested interest in conserving natural resources. The Cotton-top Tamarin SSP will continue to support Proyecto Titi and to make conservation of our natural resources a priority for future generations.


Support for the conservation of the cotton-top tamarin program has been provided by the National Science Foundation, USAID, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, INDERENA, Roger Williams Park Zoo, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, The Wilds, Wildlife Preservation Trust International, Captive Breeding Specialists Group, National Geographic Research and Exploration, American Society of Primatologists Conservation Committee, Penscynor Wildlife Park, Roger Williams Park Zoo Chapter of AAZK, Sophie Danforth Conservation Biology Fund of the Roger Williams Park Zoo and the Rhode Island Zoological Society, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and Walt Disney Company through the AZA Conservation Excellence Campaign. Thanks to the staff of Proyecto Titi and our collaborators for their continued support to conserve cotton-top tamarins.

Literature Cited

Gyllensten, U., Bergstrom, T., Josefsson, A., Sundvall, M., Savage, A., Giraldo, L.H., Blumer, E.S., Watkins, D.I. The cotton-top tamarin revisited: Limited Mhc ClassI polymorphism of wild tamarins and limited nucleotide diversity of the class IIDQA1, DQB1 and DRB Loci. Immunogenetics, 40(3)167-176, 1994.

Power, M.L., Oftedal, O.T., Savage, A., Blumer, E.S. Soto., L.H. Serum 25-OH-Vitamin D3 concentrations in wild cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus). Zoo Biology, In review.

Savage, A. Teens, tamarins, and teamwork: A small zoo's role in field conservation. In: Primate Conservation: The Role of Zoological Parks, Volume 1, American Society of Primatologists' Special Topics in Primatology, Ed. J. Wallis, In press.

Savage, A., Snowdon, C.T., Giraldo, H.L., Soto, L.H. Parental care patterns and vigilance in wild cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus). In: Adaptive Radiations of Neotropical Primates. Eds. M. Norconk, A. Rosenberger, P. Garber, Plenum Press, New York, NY In press.

Savage, A., Giraldo, H.G., Soto, L.H., Snowdon, C.T. Demography, group composition and dispersal in wild cotton-top tamarins. Guest Editors A. Savage & A. J. Baker, American Journal of Primatology, 38(1), 85-100, 1996.

Savage, A., Giraldo, L.H., Blumer, E.S., Soto, L.H., Burger, W. T., Snowdon, C.T. Field techniques for monitoring cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus oedipus) in Colombia. American Journal of Primatology. 31:189-196, 1993.

Savage, A., Snowdon, C.T., Giraldo, H. Proyecto Titi: A hands-on approach to conservation education in Colombia. American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums Annual Conference Proceedings, 1989.

Anne Savage, Ph.D., is the Cotton-Top Tamarin SSP Coordinator. She is based at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI 02907.

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