The primate family is truly quite diverse with species from great apes to tiny tamarins. This mammalian order includes the prosimians or “pre-monkeys” and the anthropoids which include monkeys, apes and man. Prosimians are Old World primates (Southeast Asia, India, Madagascar and Africa). This group includes tree shrews, lemurs, lorises, bush babies, pottos and tarsiers. These animals are generally arboreal and nocturnal. Physical characteristics include larger eyes to aid with night vision, a longer snout providing a better sense of smell and giving the animals almost a fox-like appearance and long, well-developed digits to help in climbing and jumping.
But the small primates we are concentrating on in this post are the tamarins. These small primates live in the New World—primarily Central and South America. Tamarins are the smallest of the New World monkeys and are different from the others because of some common physical features. Besides their small size, they have claws on all digits, except the big toes which have broad, flat nails (monkeys have nails). They are diurnal (active during the day) and run quadrupedally in the tree tops much like squirrels. One can distinguish a tamarin from a marmoset (another small New World primate) by looking at the teeth—marmosets are short-tusked meaning that the canines on the lower jaw are just about the same length as the incisors. Tamarins are long-tusked since their canines project up above the rest of their lower teeth.
Tamarins practice “alpha breeding” with only the dominant pair producing offspring. Quite often tamarins have twins with both parents sharing care of the babies. The youngsters are clinger babies, riding on an adult’s back. Fruits and insects are the primary diet. Their light weight allows them to search for foods in the small branches of the upper tree canopy, avoiding competition and enemies.
At the present time, the Caldwell Zoo has cotton-top (or sometimes called cotton-headed) tamarins. These little cuties come from Columbia and Costa Rica. This species of primate is endangered primarily due to habitat loss, but in the past, the pet trade also reduced their numbers. It is now illegal to import this animal into the United States.
Caldwell Zoo also houses golden lion tamarins—beautiful golden-orange little primates. This species is restricted to the rainforest of southeastern Brazil and is one of the world’s most endangered animals. These little ones prefer the upper canopy of primary forests which are disappearing. And, again, the pet trade has been a problem.
For all the tamarins and marmosets, even things like roads through their forest homes can be a big problem. Since these small primates rarely come to the ground, if a road is cut through their forest home, it creates an island for the tamarins and/or marmosets. Those forest “islands” isolate breeding groups greatly reducing genetic diversity and/or breeding possibilities.
With all of the conservation issues faced by tamarins and marmosets, there is hope. Laws prohibiting importation help control catching and selling these small primates as pets. Countries they inhabit have begun conservation measures. And, of course, breeding programs in our AZA zoos have helped increase numbers and sometimes zoos have even instituted programs that have led to successful reintroductions back into the wild.