Cotton Top Tamarins-The World’s Cutest Monkey
Well, they’re not dogs. Or cats. Or domestic animals of any kind. But I spent two years working with Cotton Top Tamarins and hearing my university BFF describe how she is continuing her work with them was one of the highlights of my trip to Florida.
Anne Savage, Senior Conservation Biologist at Disney World, has been studying Cotton Top Tamarins in the wild since graduate school at UW-Madison. She and I worked together with the squirrel-sized monkeys in the lab of Charles Snowdon, who did non-intrusive behavioral research on their vocalizations and reproductive behavior. The lab was committed to letting them live in family groups (rare at the time) in enriched environments (also rare at the time) and Anne and I spent many a night planning how to improve their environment, help young mothers raise their babies (adolescents aren’t always so good at it in many species) and working with the vets to deal with illnesses and rare injuries. We designed probably the first functional incubator for rejected baby Cotton Tops and worked hard to eliminate the need for them in the first place.
The species has to work hard at reproduction: Female Cotton Tops usually have twins–rare for a monkey–and become pregnant just days after giving birth. So the females have to produce milk for twins while they are also gestating a new set, which is why the males do most of the carrying of the young. Chuck’s lab learned that the species must be kept in family groups to thrive, because adolescents have to learn to transfer and carry the infants before they give birth themselves or assist a female in raising the young. Watching youngsters figure out how to transfer a baby from one back to another provided endless amusement for us.
Here’s an old photo from the lab of a male carrying 2 very young infants on his back. (Did I mention they are the cutest monkeys that ever lived?) Those two little white triangles on either side of the male’s head are the babies clinging to his back. You can see from the photo that the monkeys had real wood to walk on (that was a fight with the authorities!), but by the time we left the entire cage was full of ropes and plants and toys. It was gratifying work and I learned so much doing it.
I worked with the monkeys for two years between undergrad and graduate school (when I studied vocalizations from professional animal handlers to working domestic animals), and Anne went on to do field work in Columbia on CT’s as an endangered species. If you ever meet her, ask her how she talked machine gun-toting rebels who invaded her research station and threatened to kill or kidnap her into helping her with the research instead. Seriously. That’s Anne. She’s continued the research ever since, working toward conserving the forest for the monkeys by not just trying to discourage forest destruction, but by organizing economic opportunities for the locals to enable them to make a good living and still conserve the forest around them. You can read more about it on Proyecto Titi (Titi is the local name for CTs). One of the most impressive projects is organizing businesses for women making “eco-mochillas,” or environmentally friendly bags crocheted from the endless amount of plastic that pollutes the villages in Columbia (and Kenya, and Rwanda, etc etc etc). (I bought 2 in Disney World, and you could too when you go, or buy them off their website. I’m just saying….) So it helps conserve the forest, protects the Cotton Top Tamarins, provides an income for the residents and decreases pollution. I’d call that a win/win/win/win. Here’s a much better photo of a Cotton Top:
It was also fun to hear about the plans for an Avatar experience at Animal Kingdom. Now that will be worth checking out (2014 I think?). And there’s lots of other great research going on in the Conservation Biology Dept; check out this work that uses elephant’s dislike of bees to keep elephants from destroying crop land of villagers. Very creative.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Willie and Tootsie are doing really well. Willie adored the male of the house sitting couple, and seems to be relaxed and back to himself. The sitter did say that he seemed obsessed with Sushi, but when I got back the issue went back to being easily managed. He’ll begin to stalk her but can be easily distracted and stays calm and relaxed once he is. Willie’s leg and shoulder seem really good, although (of course), just when I was consciously thinking “Oh my, he really is almost sound again” this afternoon, he slid a bit on the snow and yelped, then held up his left paw. For a second I died a thousand deaths, but he went right back to using it normally again. I can’t find the slightest hitch in his gait, but of course, I’ll be extra careful tonight, and do lots of massage on it and hold off on his exercises until tomorrow.
Mostly, I just have to say that I truly enjoyed all the wonderful people I met in Florida and am grateful to so many people who made it a great experience AND I’m sooooo glad to be home!!!! I love my farm, I love my animals, I love Wisconsin, and yes yes yes, right now, I love snow!