The north of Colombia was once covered by a continuous tropical rainforest. However, due to human activity, its area has shrunk to less than 5% of its original size. Countless species of animals and plants have lost their habitat. Some disappeared forever before we could even record them. Others, like the critically endangered Cotton-Top Tamarin, survive in the last forested regions that remain.
One of these remaining refuges is the Tayrona National Park in northern Colombia. This small strip of wilderness stretches for about 30 kilometers, surviving as a reminder of how the Colombian lowlands once looked in this region. Today, this relatively large lowland area, once a forested wilderness, has been mostly converted into agricultural land.
Although the loss of wilderness was the main disaster that struck the Cotton-Top Tamarin, it was far from the only misfortune to befall this interesting primate. It paid for its cuteness and small size (less than 0.5 kilograms / 1 pound) by being captured as a pet. And because of its predisposition to human diseases, it made for a popular lab animal. As many as 40,000 of them ended up in research centers by 1976.
It’s not just the diseases that make these primates so similar to humans. It’s their interesting social behavior and even the primitive language they use to communicate with each other. Just consider this. Cotton-Top Tamarins live in troops that can include more than ten members. The dominant pair is the only one that reproduces, while the other members of the group help the dominant pair take care of the babies.
Interestingly, most of the work for the offspring (with the exception of nursing, of course) rests on the father’s back. Literally. Less experienced fathers, or those with few helpers, lose 10-11% of their weight due to the constant carrying of the young. And what about the mother? She eats as much as she can to gain a few grams.
Thanks to the careful care of the group, the survival rate of the brood is unprecedentedly high. The average lifespan in the wild is 13 years. That said, they are always on guard for predators like snakes, ocelots, tayras, and hawks.
These predators are one of the reasons why Cotton-Top Tamarins have such a diverse communication pattern. For instance, in case of danger, members of the group will make different sounds if it’s an aerial threat versus a ground threat.
Other sounds they make are used for social communication, foraging, and to express emotions. Thirty-eight different sounds have been identified in tamarins, and there are even grammatical rules they use. It’s striking evidence of the tamarin’s well-developed cognitive abilities.
Sadly, it’s estimated that there are only 6,000 left in the wild, making them one of the world’s most endangered primates.
You can tell from the photos above that I was lucky enough to see some Cotton-Top Tamarins during my trip to Colombia. The trip started with two days on the Caribbean coast, visiting the Tyrona National Park where many of these tamarins live.
Of course, two days is a very short time to orient yourself in a new environment and to try to find a species that is on the verge of extinction. In this respect, our expedition was very lucky. On one of the trails leading to the sea, we noticed a movement in the branches. It wasn’t a Capuchin Monkey, of which there are many in the park.
Little white heads were flashing at us from between the leaves of the trees! Just before the end of the day, we came across a group of about six individuals foraging within sight of the sandy beach. The tamarins were not particularly shy, indicating that their days of being hunted by humans are apparently over. But they still kept a reasonable distance.
For a while, the troop stopped at the edge of the forest, where it was possible to photograph and observe them. But in a few minutes, these little forest goblins were hidden again by the green arms of the forest. Thus, just before sunset, nature allowed us to photograph one of its rarest gems.
In practice, it was just enough for the combination of Nikon Z9 with 400mm f/4.5 lens and 1.4x teleconverter to bridge the distance. A 500-600mm lens was optimal considering how far away they were. A longer lens could have shown more detail on the tamarin’s face, but then I would have lost the tail at the bottom of my composition!
The protection of the Cotton-Top Tamarin is carried out by Proyecto Tití. Visit their website to learn more about this rare primate, what is being done to save it, and how you can help.