Disney's Animal Kingdom conservation biologists, headed by Dr. Ann Savage, have determined an accurate population estimate of the critically endangered cottontop tamarin. Dr. Savage reports in the journal Nature Communication that approximately 7,000 individuals remain in the wild. Prior to the study, a reliable way of calculating the population size had not been known. What Dr. Savage discovered is that the cottontop tamarins are attracted to the sound of other tamarin voices. Recorded tamarin vocalizations were played in the cottontop's habitat, as the researchers counted the number of individuals who came to determine the noise's source.
The cottontop tamarin is a small monkey living exclusively in the wild in the rain forests of Columbia. They are small creatures, weighing less than a pound in adulthood, and measuring only six inches from head to start of the tail. They eat a varied diet of natural vegetation and small animals such as lizards and insects. They have an advanced communication system, using 38 different sounds and adhering to grammatical rules. The cottontop tamarin females are especially nurturing, oftentimes forgoing their own fertility to care for other tamarins' young as needed, even sharing food with non-related juveniles.
Forest loss is the main cause for the cottontop tamarin's decline. Even in protected areas, forests have been shrinking. Although they have been protected in Columbia since 1969, the animal was often taken for use in the medicinal, pet trade and zoo industries. It is currently illegal to export the monkey. The cottontop tamarin has been especially sought after by the medicinal community, as it is the only species outside of humans that spontaneously develop colon cancer. Tens of thousands of tamarins were imported into the US in the 1960s and 1970s for research into treatment of the cancer. Dr. Savage's previously mentioned study is the first of its kind, researching the cottontop tamarin. Otherwise, little has been done to protect or research the species. Training local populations to respect the tamarin and the rain forests, and continuing to breed cottontop tamarins in captivity are currently the main conservation efforts being utilized.