Habitat: Tropical rain forest
Offspring: 2-3 young
are small primates from the forested areas of South America. There
are many species of Tamarin, some of which are restricted to a very
small geographical area. Habitat destruction and collection for
laboratories, or the pet trade have brought many species to the
brink of extinction.
such a large continent, there is still much to be learned and to
discover, particularly in tropical rain forests where survey conditions
drink sap from trees by scoring the bark and leaves with their long
incisor teeth. They are classified as dangerous under the
UK Dangerous Wild Animals Act because they can also inflict
a savage bite with these incisors. When defending babies, in particular,
males can be utterly fearless.
live in family groups of 1 or 2 generations, plus the original pair.
When 2 or 3 young are born, they are carried around, groomed and
generally looked after by the male, moving back to the female to
tamarins are endangered in the wild. In captivity they have been
bred into many generations, and are the subject of an international
captive breeding effort. In captivity at least, the Cotton-top Tamarin
is in no danger on extinction, and families could be available for
reintroduction should it be deemed appropriate.
When we first started to keep this species in 1972, cotton-tops were
classified as Vulnerable Endangered Species, whose number had fallen
to dangerously low levels. Some estimates put this at about 500 individuals,
with very few in captivity. The principal cause of this was over-collecting
in the wild for laboratories, with a few going into the pet trade
(mainly in other countries, rather than the UK).
In the intervening quarter of a century, a sustained effort has been
made around the globe to propagate this attractive species - with
startling success. University Psychology departments and laboratories
have bred many thousands, whilst hundreds more have been bred in zoos.
By the early 1980s when a 'Captive Breeding Management Protocol and
Studbook' was set up, there were so many cotton-tops available in
captivity that space was becoming a problem.
Space is a problem if, either the animals are over-crowded (they usually
live in small family units), or cotton-tops are taking up resources
(of space and staff) which could be utilised for a more critically
endangered species of marmoset or tamarin. To manage the population
properly, studbook keepers were established, and the population was
demographically 'mapped', i.e., laid out in family trees. From this
it was possible to work out the degree of in-breeding in the different
'families', and whether there were animals available which had not
bred - or not bred enough - to widen the genetic base of the captive
population. In this way the maximum possible genetic variation could
be 'built in' to the captive population.
Once this demographic analysis had been carried out it soon became
clear that some families (often originating from laboratories) were
'over represented', i.e., had bred too successfully, and were distorting,
through their numbers, the genetic 'family-tree', or pyramid. If this
was allowed to remain, the eventual outcome would be a loss of genetic
variation in the population. This might even be described as an unnecessary
loss of genetic variation, unnecessary because it is within our powers,
collectively, to do something about it. That something
is to instruct those zoos with 'over-represented' blood-lines to slow
up or (in some cases) to stop breeding altogether, whilst maximum
effort was put into 'under-represented' lines. This is quite a difficult
concept to 'sell' to some members of staff, zoo societies and volunteers
(never mind the media), especially where the species as a whole, is
still described as an 'Endangered Species', and especially a species
such as the cotton-top for which, only a decade or so earlier, we
had been receiving pats on the back for breeding at all!
After we were informed that our 'family' was, indeed, of an over-represented
line, we asked the studbook keeper if we could re-home them to a collection
which would be happy to maintain them primarily for exhibition purposes,
whilst we kept instead a pair from an under-represented line. A few
months later the swaps were arranged, and that is the line that we
have been maintaining ever since.
Marmosets and tamarins are fairly straightforward to maintain in captivity.
In laboratory animal houses they are housed in large, metal cages,
about 1.2 metres in length, and they breed very well under these conditions.
In common with most zoos we prefer something much larger and more
naturalistic, with heavy planting in the outside enclosure and numerous
next-boxes. Ideally, we would like to keep them at semi-liberty, though
this has to be carried out with some care.
Tamarins differ from marmosets in at least one important respect;
they possess large canine teeth. These suggest a different diet, and
this is indeed so, because the teeth are used to score the bark of
trees so the running sap can be licked up. These large teeth have
other uses too; a possessive male tamarin resenting the approach of
a keeper near his mate may have no hesitation in making his displeasure
felt, with a couple of searing bites which, if he has jumped onto
your head or shoulder at the time, is no laughing matter!
In common with the other members of this primate family,
after the 1-3 young have been born they spend most of their time clinging
to their father, crawling back to the female only to be suckled. A
pair, and two or three litters of offspring - in total some 10 to
15 animals - are usually the maximum size of group which would be
encountered in the wild.
The Cotton-Top Tamarins in the small primates house are an example
of a successful reintroduction programme. Coming from South America
where their numbers were greatly reduced a successful breeding programme
in captivity has enabled many to be released back into the wild in