GEOFFROY'S TAMARIN

Saguinus geoffroyi

Geographic Distribution and Habitat

The Geoffroy’s tamarin (Saguinus geoffroyi), also known as the Panamanian red-crested or rufous-naped tamarin, is a small monkey found between eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. These Latin American primates live in both dry and wet climates, spanning across their geographical range. Their easternmost boundary is the Las Orquídeas National Park, while the westernmost boundary is slightly past the Altos de Campana National Park in Panama. The Geoffroy’s tamarin is more commonly found within forests on the Pacific coast, rather than the forests on the Atlantic Coast. 

In Panama, where Geoffroy’s tamarins are known as “mono titi“, you will find them in primary and secondary forests, and dry and moist tropical forests with moderate humidity. A secondary forest is a woodland area in which forests have regenerated, or regrown, after human disturbances, agricultural clearances, timber harvests, or naturally occurring disasters. They prefer to live in sub-canopy and shrub levels of forests, often near forest edges or disturbed forest habitats. 

In some areas, depending on their distribution, you may find between 20-30 Geoffroy’s tamarins per 0.38 square miles (1 square kilometer). Multiple troops may live near each other but will stay within their own territories. With so many tamarins in close proximity to one another, that’s a lot of monkey business!

TAXONOMIC NOTES

Belonging to the Saguinus genus, Geoffroy’s tamarins (Saguinus geoffroyi) share their genus with the majority of tamarin species. “Geoffroyi” pays respect to the French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. 

All nonhuman primate species are classified as either platyrrhines or catarrhines. The Geoffroy’s tamarin, like most tamarin species, are platyrrhines. Platyrrhine, derived from the Greek word “platyrrhini”, refers to a monkey with a broad nasal spectrum and sideways-facing nostrils. With this particular feature, the Geoffroy’s tamarin belongs to the Callitrichidae family. African-Eurasian primate species, such as macaques or baboons, are catarrhines with narrower noses and downward pointing nostrils. 

There are no subspecies of the Geoffroy’s tamarin. 

Geoffroy's tamarin range, IUCN 2023

Size, Weight, and Lifespan

Although they look very similar in size, females are slightly larger than males, making males and females sexually dimorphic. Additionally, female Geoffroy’s tamarins have larger, more developed, anogenital and suprapubic glands, while males are observably smaller. 

At birth, an infant Geoffroys’s tamarin weighs between 0.08 pounds to 0.11 pounds (36.3 grams to 49.9 grams). Adult males weigh around 1 pound (453.6 grams) and adult females weigh around 1.1 pounds (498.95 grams). That being said, the average range of their adult weights is anywhere between 0.5 pounds to nearly 2 pounds (226.8 grams to 907.2 grams). 

As adults, the body length of a Geoffroy’s tamarin is between 8.5 inches to 9.5 inches (21.6 centimeters to 24.3 centimeters). The tail length adds another 12 inches to 16.5 inches (30.5 centimeters to 41.9 centimeters). 

Geoffroy’s tamarins can live up to 13 years in the wild. The oldest recorded Geoffroy’s tamarin lived in captivity for nearly 20 years! 

Appearance

As the only tamarin found in Central America, these monkeys are easy to identify! In color, Geoffroy’s tamarins vary in shades of black, white, red, and brown. They have notable white underbodies, white tufts of hair on their heads, curved ears, and long, non-prehensile tails. Their nape, or back of the neck, is usually red, making for quite the funky monkey.

Geoffroy’s tamarins travel quadrupedally, that is, on all fours. Their nonprehensile tails, which are unable to grasp objects, assist with balance while climbing and leaping. About one-third of their tail is red and brown, while the remaining portion is black. 

Tamarins do not have opposable thumbs. Unlike most primate species, they have claws instead of fingernails on all digits except the big toe, which has a flat nail. Claws help them to climb tree bark with agility and grip small branches when traveling around the forest.

Diet

Geoffroy’s tamarins are omnivorous and typically forage for food within thick vegetation, usually between 6.56 feet to 49.21 feet (2 meters to 15 meters) tall. Within the vegetation, Geoffroy’s tamarins are looking to find fruits, insects, flowers, nectar, plant gums, and other small animals to eat. Tamarins are manipulative foragers, meaning they probe with their elongated hands and fingers into tree holes and crevices. Doing this breaks up tree barks, allowing them to successfully forage for small insects and other prey. As they can jump up to 16 feet (4.87 meters) between trees, Geoffroy’s tamarins will only descend to the ground if the closest tree is too far, or if they are trying to retrieve fallen food. When tamarins reach the ground, they become more vulnerable to predation. 

Having a three-cusped upper molar morphology, Geoffroy’s tamarins often feed on fluid secretions from plant roots, also known as exudates. Long canine teeth help this species ingest and break down their food components, while short incisors allow the tamarin to bite down. When ingesting tree sap, because their teeth are not adapted to gouge and make holes in a tree, they will consume tree sap when it is easily accessible. Drinking water can be sourced from tree holes that are already formed, or from flower petals, particularly from the petals of balsa trees (Ochroma pyramidale). 

Found in the disturbed forests of Central America and South America, the Geoffroy’s tamarin favorite foods are the fruits and flowers of cecropia trees (Cecropia peltata). Flourishing during summer months, but found year-round, cecropia fruits are long and thin and taste like a mixture of honey and maple syrup for this species. 

Throughout various ecosystems around the world, wild diets tend to be higher in fiber and protein, while lower in sugar and water content. Geoffroy’s tamarins, who live under human supervision (zoos or wildlife sanctuaries), often eat fresh and easily accessible fruits that offer opposing benefits. Due to their unique genetic makeup, if a Geoffroy’s tamarin consumes excess amounts of fresh fruits, it could lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or dental issues.

Behavior and Lifestyle

As a diurnal species, Geoffroy’s tamarins wake up at sunrise and spend daytime hours crossing their home ranges and foraging for food. Unlike other arboreal species, the Geoffroy’s tamarin traverses the forest by selecting and crossing thin branches, ascending and descending through long leaps. Most days, they are active for about 7 to 14 hours. 

Geoffroy’s tamarins are very social and live in multi-male and multi-female groups, usually between 2 to 9 individuals, with 3 to 5 being the most common. A group of Geoffroy’s tamarins is called a troop. Typically, male Geoffroy’s tamarins show low levels of aggression with each other and spend most of their energy engaging in grooming behaviors. Since troop members can become very close, many being direct descendants of other troop members, group members help each other with predator avoidance and territory defense. When defending territory, and dealing with potential intruders, they can become very aggressive and utilize various communication forms. 

During breeding season, males are far more aggressive with one another, especially when competing for female attention. Injuries they may inflict when fighting include deep scratches, broken nails, and injured fingers. That being said, they are most aggressive when dealing with potential intruders.

At night, tamarins sleep in tree hollows or dense vine tangles up to 52.4 feet (16 meters) above ground. Because of their size, the Geoffroy’s tamarin is more susceptible to predator attacks. Sleeping at these heights protects them from unwanted predators. Such predators may include pumas (Puma concolor), ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), jaguarundis (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), margays (Leopardus wiedii), oncillas (Leopardus guttulus), harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja), double-toothed kites (Harpagus bidentatus), and various snake species.

Fun Facts

Finding a Geoffroy’s tamarin is “V-ery” easy! In the trees, all you have to look for is the V-shaped tuft of hair on top of their heads. 

Daily Life and Group Dynamics

With home ranges between 0.6 to 1.2 square miles, Geoffroy’s tamarins share their territories with many other primate species, such as the Panamanian night monkey (Aotus zonalis), the Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), the Coiba Island howler monkey (Alouatta coibensis), the mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata), and the Colombian white-faced capuchin (Cebus capucinus). 

Although tamarins’ breeding season is year round, the peak breeding season is the dry season, usually between April. and June. Troops usually consist of one single, reproductively active female, one or more adult males, and juveniles. Within their social groups, males typically form cooperative reproductive partnerships. A cooperative reproductive partnership is a reproductive system in which multiple individuals within a troop help raise an infant, even if they are not the biological parent. This parental responsibility is shared equally among all of the males in the troop, regardless of their age.

Communication

Geoffroy’s tamarins communicate through vocalizations, body gestures, and scent marking. These types of communication are utilized among their species, and to potentially ward off others.

Vocalizations include whistling, trilling, rasping, shrieking, or sneezing. They may also mimic the calls of other species whose diets are similar to their own, specifically the Panama flycatcher (Myiarchus panamensis). This bird species can be found in shrubby woodlands and open forests, especially around thick mangroves. Their call is a series of “pee-pee-pee-pee” descending whistles. Flycatchers hunt for small insects, such as various tick species, leafhoppers, cicadas, butterflies, etc. When mimicking the Panama flycatcher’s vocalizations, the Geoffroy’s tamarin widen their potential to catch susceptible prey, satisfying their survival needs. 

Scent marking is a type of olfactory communication in which the animal deposits its odor in specific places to transmit signals to other animals, whether or not the signal is positive or threatening. Both females and males scent mark, but studies have determined female Geoffroy’s tamarins mark more frequently than males, and reproducing tamarins scent mark more than non-reproducing tamarins. They predominantly use their anogenital gland to scent mark, followed by their suprapubic gland. Territorial boundaries are defined by both scent markings and vocalizations. 

Outward hand gestures and lengthening body postures, such as standing on hind legs and directly facing opponents, may be signs of aggression and are often directed toward predators. Piloerection, or the bristling of hairs in response to shock or fright, is another form of communication used against predators. This response is very similar to goosebumps in humans, occurring when we feel threatened or in danger. 

Regarding reproductive communication, when ready to breed, female Geoffroy’s tamarins coil their tails to attract a male, a sign that they are ready to reproduce. 

Reproduction and Family

Geoffroy’s tamarins are polyandrous and have polygynous mating systems. Mating with multiple males provides females with certain advantageous benefits, such as protection from predators and provisioning, or being supplied with food or drink as a resource. 

In this species, a single breeding female will mate with two or more males during her breeding cycle, often producing fraternal twins. Breeding females typically produce one to three offspring per year, with most births producing non-identical twins. After a 140-day to 170-day pregnancy, infants are birthed with black fur on their bodies and tails, unlike what you see in mature adults.

Females carry their offspring for 2-3 weeks on their backs and once this period is over, she will allow the males in her troop to assist her and take on more parental responsibility. 

Infants become mobile between 2 to 5 weeks old and start consuming solid foods between 4 to 7 weeks old. Once they reach 18 weeks old, they are generally considered independent. Once they are 25 weeks old, they are fully weaned and no longer rely on parental support. Both males and females become sexually mature around 2 years of age. 

Ecological Role

Tamarins play an important role in seed dispersal throughout their geographic range. Seed dispersal encourages plant species to survive and grow over large surface areas. Geoffroy’s tamarins disperse seeds by: spitting; dropping; masticating, or chewing seeds; and defecating seeds, or discharging seeds through feces. Studies show that tamarins have even adopted specific dental, digestive, and/or sensory adaptations that help with seed selection.

Riverine barriers, such as rivers or riverbanks, promote species diversification among Geoffroy’s tamarins. Referencing previous studies on the species, scientists identified phenotypic differences among the species across large waterways, such as the Panama Canal. A phenotypic difference refers to a characteristic easy to identify with the naked eye, such as hair coloring or height. Because of these studies, scientists expect tamarins to show fast population differentiation in response to potentially changing landscapes. With a high genetic diversity, Geoffory’s tamarins are more equipped to adapt well to environmental changes. Over time, this should increase their population trend. 

Conservation Status and Threats

Under a global assessment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Geoffroy’s tamarin as near threatened (IUCN, 26 January 2015), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species under criteria A2acd. The species’ current population trend is decreasing.

The ongoing threats to the Geoffroy’s tamarin are residential and commercial building, hunting and trapping, and logging and wood harvesting. Since 2001, Panama has lost 482 thousand hectares of natural forest and in Colombia, the Geoffroy’s tamarin is projected to lose at least half of their habitat by the year 2040. 

Although this species is generally able to coexist in urban environments, without interfering with human activity, these threats lead to species mortality, ecosystem degradation, and ecosystem conversion.  

Conservation Efforts

The Geoffroy’s tamarin is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES created a legal framework for increased measures to control hunting for the pet trade, for educational awareness materials, and for the monitoring of trends in population numbers and habitat loss.

As Geoffroy’s tamarins are Near Threatened, there are land, water, and education protections in place across their geographic range, in both Colombia and Panama. In Colombia, the Geoffroy’s tamarin is protected in Los Katios National Natural Park. In Panama, protected areas include Altos da Campana National Park, Filo del Tallo Hydrological Protection Zone, Portobelo National Park, Corregimiento del Nargana Wildlife Refuge Area, and Bagre Biological Corridor. 

According to CITES, in Panama, the Fundación Pro-Conservación de los Primates Panameños (FCPP) implemented a long term primate project for Geoffroy’s tamarins to begin population surveys. These surveys were used to calculate primate densities and total population sizes. In education programs, the Geoffroy’s tamarin has been illustrated on bookmarks distributed by FCPP in Darien and Panama Provinces as a part of their environmental education plan. 

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Written by Brooklynne Mitchell-Arno, May 2024