Fuzzy, small and faithful

April Fool’s Day marked the opening of the zoo’s family farm and the official start of its spring babies season. But on the last day of March, most of the baby action was still indoors — especially in the Tropics, where two-week-old agoutis were on exhibit. My camera and I gravitated to the South American end of the trail, looking for the new tiny rodents. I came for the agoutis but stayed for the two adult golden lion tamarins — equally tiny monkeys dwelling in the same exhibit’s treetops.

But first, the ground-dwelling agoutis. The two babies were so shy and lightning-quick that my camera caught a mere blur of them, but because they’re born “precocial” — just a miniature, self-reliant version of their fully formed adult selves — they really don’t look much different from their parents, seen below. And even the largest adult agouti won’t top 9 pounds.

Zoo lit informs volunteers that the Greek genus name for agoutis, Dasyprocta, means “fuzzy butt” and that they’re “the basic diet of South American carnivores” — including, at least once, a biology professor in-law of mine who makes annual research trips down there and graciously eats what the natives serve him. In the rainforest, agoutis may gather in large groups to feed, following along beneath tamarins or other monkeys and browsing on fruit and nuts that the primates drop from the trees. Agoutis are the only animal that can chew through the woody pod of a Brazil nut, releasing and spreading the seeds that nestle within.

Before the zoo’s Creatures under the Canopy exhibits opened several years ago, I confused the word “tamarin” with tamarind, the African evergreen fruit tree. The four varieties of lion tamarins (with “manes”) also include golden-headed, black-faced and just plain black. The golden ones weigh less than two pounds apiece, and they live in what remains of eastern Brazil’s rainforests, mostly in a preserve near Rio de Janeiro. Logging and agriculture have decimated the rest of their coastal home.

Golden lion tamarins and agoutis have more in common than a shared habitat and zoo exhibit. One is a primate and one is a rodent, but both form monogamous pairs and give birth to twins. In the wild, a tamarin father and other adults participate in caring for babies. At the zoo, our tamarin couple may or may not breed; the female reportedly suffered a recent miscarriage. Here they nestle together, endearing and clearly devoted.

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