Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Also known as golden-handed tamarins, Midas tamarins, and yellow-handed tamarins, red-handed tamarins are found across a large area of northeastern South America. They are endemic to Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, and found in Brazil, north of the Rio Amazonas and east of the Rios Negro.
Red-handed tamarins live in a range of habitats, including lowland and savanna forests. They are a resilient species and, unlike some other primates, survive quite well in close proximity to villages and in forest edge habitats. In contrast to most species, the range of this species actually appears to be growing. Unfortunately, their range is expanding into habitat previously occupied by the Critically Endangered pied tamarin, who they appear to be out-competing.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
As some of the smallest primates in the world, red-handed tamarins measure approximately 9.8 in (25 cm) in length. There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in this species and males and females are approximately the same size. Their long tails add another 15 in (38 cm), more than doubling their length. Females weigh slightly more than males at an average of 1.3 lb (575 g) compared to 1.1 lb (515 g) for males, although the females’ weight probably varies depending on her reproductive state.
Their life expectancy in the wild is not well-known, although similar tamarins can live up to 20 years in captivity.
Also known as the golden-handed tamarin, Midas tamarin, and yellow-handed tamarin, these tamarins’ most distinctive feature is, of course, their brightly colored hands, which are covered in hair that varies in color from gold to orange to red, and contrasts sharply with the glossy black pelage that covers the rest of their bodies. The black hair across their backs is also marbled with orange. They have dark skin on their faces, genitalia, and large, protruding ears.
They have claws on every digit except their big toe, which has a flattened nail characteristic of other primates. In addition to this, their thumbs are not opposable due to the lack of a saddle joint. Near their mid-chest and around their genitalia, they possess specialized scent glands, which are used to mark their territory and provide information regarding identity and sexual receptivity of individuals.
What Does It Mean?
A social system characterized by alloparental care wherein offspring are cared for by other members of the group in addition to their parents.
Having a diet that consists of food of both plant and animal origin.
Distinct difference in size or appearance between the sexes of an animal in addition to difference between the reproductive organs themselves.
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Red-handed tamarins are omnivorous, meaning that they eat both plant and animal matter. They consume a range of plant parts, including fruits, flowers, nectar, and plant exudates. Plant gums and saps tend to be used as fallback foods to gain enough energy when preferred fruits are unavailable. Additionally, they will predate small animals, including frogs, lizards, spiders, and insects. The wide range of habitats they inhabit show that these tamarins likely have a high level of flexibility in their diet.
Behavior and Lifestyle
These arboreal primates live in the trees and have claw-like nails that enable them to climb trees with ease. They are diurnal, and sleep in specific trees each night. They never sleep in the same sleeping site for more than three days in a row, but they do re-use sites that they have not slept in for a while.
Like most primates, they spend their days moving throughout their home range, foraging, resting, and engaging in social behaviors, such as grooming one another. While they are cooperative with individuals in the same group, they are territorial primates. Each group’s home range is, on average, 75–100 acres (30–40 ha). Group sizes are usually between 4 and 15 individuals, with a size of 2-8 individuals being more common. However, individuals of this species living in small groups have been known to merge their groups together to form larger groups.
Daily Life and Group Dynamics
Scientists still don’t have a detailed understanding of red-handed tamarin social systems, but these tamarins seem to show some flexibility in their group structures. However, as for other species of tamarins, red-handed tamarins are likely cooperative breeders that live in extended family groups. It is likely that each group has only one female who reproduces, while adult “helpers,” (usually the adult offspring of the breeding female) help to care for the youngest offspring. This system allows the non-breeding adults to gain experience in rearing offspring before breeding themselves.
Tamarins, like other cooperative breeders, such as meerkats or ants, show an incredible level of cooperation. They demonstrate this through high levels of food sharing between adults. This food-sharing in tamarins is characterized by not just sharing food in response to begging from a juvenile, but actively offering food to other members of the group.
Also called golden-handed tamarins, they are likely named after King Midas from Greek mythology, who could turn objects to gold just by touching them.
They are one of the few primate species whose range is actually expanding. Unfortunately, they are expanding into territory previously held by the pied tamarin, whose own numbers are decreasing.
Red-handed tamarins, like other tamarins, have a complex range of calls including long calls (territorial calls), chirps (alarm calls), and trills (agonistic calls). Their forest home, where group members can be out of sight among dense branches, makes auditory communication highly adaptive. They are more likely to emit territorial calls in response to calls from pied tamarins, compared to calls from their own species, suggesting a higher level of competition with this other species. Interestingly, red-handed tamarins that live alongside pied tamarins in primary forests have adapted their long calls to more closely resemble the calls of pied tamarins. Scientists aren’t certain why this convergence has happened, but hypothesize that it could be to better communicate with pied tamarins—both species would benefit from understanding the territorial calls of the other species. They aren’t the first primates to have modified their calls in response to new social surroundings—chimpanzees have also been known to change their ‘accents’ to sound more like new group mates, showing that primate vocalizations are more flexible than once thought.
These tamarins also engage in scent-marking behavior as a means of communication and possibly as a way for the breeding female to stop the other females from reproducing. This scent marking is probably also important in signaling the group’s territory to other groups nearby.
Reproduction and Family
Groups of red-handed tamarins usually contain only one breeding female. This solo role may be achieved through reproductive suppression, where hormones from the breeding female prevent the other females from becoming fertile—a common mechanism in cooperative breeders. Depending on the structure of the group, the breeding female may mate with one male, or multiple males. After a gestation period of around 140 days, the female will give birth, usually to twins. Tamarins are some of the few primate species who are able to successfully raise twins. Adult helpers play a large role in raising the young, and actively share their food with them. These young are weaned after approximately 70 days and reach sexual maturity at 20 months. Instead of leaving the group immediately, they may remain in their birth group as non-breeding helpers.
Primates are often referred to as the “gardeners of the forest,” and this species is no exception. Given their high fruit intake, these tamarins likely have an important role to play in seed dispersal, and thus forest growth, in the forests they inhabit. Their role may become increasingly important as other primates in the same habitats are lost due to human activity.
Conservation Status and Threats
The red-handed tamarin is currently listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2015). In contrast to many other primates, their overall population appears to be stable and not declining. They are present in degraded habitats and in close proximity to human settlements. They are rarely hunted and are not a preferred food species to humans. Often, they are the only species left in the vicinity of a village where there is hunting, although their tails are sometimes used as ornaments.
In terms of natural predators, raptors predate on these tamarins, although the tamarins are often able to evade them in the canopy.
The red-handed tamarin is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There are many protected areas throughout their range and they inhabit one of the least disturbed areas in Latin America. While they are not currently threatened, it will be important to better understand their behavior and distribution to provide effective conservation solutions if they are needed in the future.
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Written by Jennifer Botting, PhD, April 2021