The tamarin whisperer

Doing my usual loop of the Tropics trail last week, I crossed paths with fellow volunteer Michele at the South American end, by the tamarin exhibits. She was on the cotton-top side (across from the golden lion tamarins), gazing up into the treetops where these white-crested mini-monkeys usually perch. Instead of the usual pair, there was just the female “widow,” whose mate died of cancer quite recently. The female cotton-top might be lonely, but at this moment, Michele seemed to be filling the gap. She was making a series of cooing and whistling noises, and the tamarin was squeaking back at her (zoo lit says cotton-tops have more than 30 different vocalizations), hopping back and forth on its branch, occasionally leaning over to rub a furry shoulder against the bark — obviously intrigued and possibly even enamored.

This imperfect photo is probably the clearest shot I could ever hope to get of this tamarin and her complicated little face, bathed in the red glow of heat lamps. Our cotton-tops stay high in the trees, as they would in their native rainforest canopy in northwestern Colombia. In the wild, they lick rain off leaves and suck sap from trees after biting the bark off. They avoid descending into range of earthbound predators such as cats. These 1-pound monkeys were declared an endangered species in 1973, and fewer than 3,000 remain in the wild. Besides squeaking at volunteers, they’re said to express emotion by flicking their tongues and, when alarmed, raising the shock of white hair on their heads. A former fellow volunteer, also snowy-haired, once told me laughingly that a child said to her, pointing at a cotton-top tamarin: “It looks just like you!”

Whether it was Michele’s long blond hair or the way she was softly cooing and even meowing, this tamarin’s fascination with my current fellow volunteer was so intense that I dubbed her “the tamarin whisperer” on the spot. After Michele proceeded along the trail, I lingered a few moments to observe the reaction and to try a little cooing of my own. I got a very minimal response. Here’s the tamarin gazing after the no-longer-visible Michele — disconsolately, I suspect.

We’re told that the Species Survival Program for tamarins is on the lookout for a new male, which ideally can be shipped here before it gets too cold for such a tiny tropical creature to travel this far north. Wild tamarins live in groups of three to 15 members; they are not solitary by nature, and clearly, this one is ready for some companionship.


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.