Punk-rocker primate at risk of extinction in the wild

A tiny Colombian primate with a distinctive punk-rock hairstyle is in imminent danger of extinction, according to conservation biologists at Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom department of education and science.

“The findings paint the clearest picture yet of a dwindling population at risk,” Walt Disney World said in a news statement about the research.

cotton-top tamarin photo.jpg

Disney’s Wildlife Conservation Fund has worked to understand and conserve the Critically Endangered cotton-top tamarin in the tropical forests of South America. Animal Kingdom conservation biologist Anne Savage is one of the world’s leading experts on the species.

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World Communications

The endangered cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) is found in a small area of northwest Colombia. According to the research published in the journal Nature Communication, there are now only 7,000 of the species left in the wild.

“With 20,000-30,000 animals exported to the United States in the late 1960s, this must represent a precipitous decline,” Anne Savage and colleagues said in their research paper. “Habitat destruction and capture for the illegal pet trade are ongoing. Urgent conservation measures are required to prevent extinction in the wild,” they stated.

The cotton-top tamarin was listed as Critically Endangered in 2008 on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Legally protected in Colombia since 1969, the major threat to the species in the past was export for the pet trade, zoos and biomedical research, according to IUCN. Export was banned in 1974. The species is now listed on  CITES Appendix I, which permits international trade in specimens of endangered species only in exceptional circumstances. 

Averaging about ten inches long, cotton-tops are tiny in size and hard to see since they live high up in the forest canopies and flee at the first sign of people, according to the Disney statement. “Before the study, there was no reliable estimate of how many of these animals are left in the wild and no feasible method of counting them,” Disney said.

“However, Dr. Savage knew that cotton-tops tamarins were attracted to the sound of tamarin vocalizations. That proved to be the key to surveying the shy animal. So Dr. Savage, working with Dr. Len Thomas of St. Andrews University in Scotland, developed a technique of playing recordings of cotton-top tamarin calls and counting the animals that came to find the source of the vocalization.

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“Because of the work of Dr. Savage and Dr. Thomas, cotton-top tamarins are now on the list of the world’s 25 most endangered primates,” Disney explained.

“Everything we do at Disney’s Animal Kingdom revolves around caring for wildlife and wild places,” Savage said. “At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, all of us are committed to using new technologies and new techniques to study animals.”

Visitors to the Animal Kingdom, a Disney theme park in Florida, can see the cotton-top tamarin shortly after stepping off the train at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, where they can also learn what’s being done to protect the species.

Related coverage:

Half of all primates threatened with extinction

Conservationists Fight to Save Tiny Colombian Monkey


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn