Conservationists Fight to Save Tiny Colombian Monkey

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Five's Company for Cotton-tops

Tamarins, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, have a unique way of caring for their young. An entire family works to care for new tamarins; in wild and captive monkeys, a group of five appears to be the ideal number of caretakers needed for healthy young. Young monkeys learn how to be parents from taking care of their siblings.

While multiple births might be a shock to human parents, it's routine for tamarin moms. Mothers almost always give birth to twins. And these two babies are one of the reasons why it's important to have strong family ties.

The two babies together make up 20 percent of mother's weight. It's like a 120-pound (55-kilogram) human woman giving birth to two 12-pound (5.5-kilogram) bundles of joy, said Charles Snowdon, professor of psychology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"Then, there are no beds or nests to set the baby down in, and [in captivity] you're pregnant two weeks later," he said. "How can she do it by herself? She really can't." In the wild, tamarins breed only once a year, but still need the help to survive.

Snowdon, reproductive biologist Toni Ziegler, and numerous students and scientists are exploring tamarin behavioral biology. One current experiment has been measuring captive monkeys' response to a natural predator, the boa constrictor. Right now, Snowdon said, the snake doesn't faze tamarins used to captive living.

"What that's telling us is the monkeys that are in captivity don't have street smarts," he said. These researchers want to figure out how to train them to have the responses that would come naturally in the wild.

According to Savage, while it's unlikely that captive cotton-tops would be returned to the wild, learning about captive tamarin behavior could help in designing better places for cotton-tops in zoos and preserves.

Back in Colombia, the project also tries to transform practices to protect the rainforest, and in turn, shelter wild cotton-tops.

One of Proyecto Tití's projects has been the development of a new kind of cooking stove. Typically, a family might use 15 logs of wood a day in order to prepare their meals. The tamarin team helped create a stove called a binde, based upon a cooking method used traditionally in Colombia, which can cut wood use to five logs a day.

On a 7-hectare (17-acre) plot of land, the group started a training site for low-impact farming, as well as creating a section of fast-growing trees to use in the new stoves. A medicinal herb garden offers another source of income for the community.

At Disney's Animal Kingdom, live cotton-tops and their story are on display to educate people about the tiny tamarins. To protect cotton-tops at a distance, Savage said, "people can really pay attention to the type of things they're purchasing."

Choosing products that don't cause further habitat destruction, such as shade-grown coffee and sustainably harvested hardwoods can make a difference in the diminishing rainforest, Savage said.

From village children in Colombia to the young tourists in Walt Disney World, there is something everyone can do to help keep the cotton-top tamarin safe in its native forest home.

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