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How to speak monkey: The language of cotton-top tamarins - Anne Savage


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The cotton-top tamarin is a very vocal monkey -- the species communicates using a sophisticated language of 38 distinct and grammatically structured calls! Anne Savage teaches a few of these chirps and whistles, taking us through a day in the life of Shakira the tamarin (using sounds pulled from the wild) as Shakira signals to her family, talks to her food and warns against potential predators.

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Cotton-top tamarins are unique in that scientists have spent considerable time studying this critically endangered primate in captive conditions and in the wild. We know more about cotton-top tamarins than just about any callitrichid (marmosets and tamarins). You can read the scientific paper and listen to the calls to learn the meaning of 38 distinct vocalizations. Did you know that cotton-tops like certain foods more than others and that is reflected in the rate of calling (Type C and D chirps)?

Cotton-top tamarin are very territorial and we noticed that when we played a Normal Long Call from an unrelated animal the group responded to the call very aggressively. They would respond with Normal Long Calls and would come running over to investigate where the sound was coming from. In the wild, we noticed that cotton-top tamarins would use Normal Long Calls as a way to avoid neighboring groups. One group would give Normal Longs Calls and the neighboring group would decide to either respond or avoid the group. We would hear lots of Normal Longs Calls at group territorial boundaries.

Now think about how you would count the remaining cotton-top tamarins in the forests of Colombia. These tiny one pound monkeys live 20-30 feet up in a tree and remain very well hidden. You can walk through the forest and never see them, since they typically run away when they hear a lot of noise in the forest. So, when I wanted to develop a method to help us count the remaining cotton-top tamarins in Colombia, I needed to think about how I could make cotton-tops more visible so that they could be counted. That’s when I had the idea of playing the vocalization of an unfamiliar cotton-top tamarins Normal Long Call to wild tamarins. When wild cotton-tops hear the Normal Long Call of a stranger, they run toward the sound making them visible long enough for us to count them! Combining the knowledge of cotton-top behavior, understanding their vocalizations, and applying statistical sampling techniques allowed us to develop a new technique that accurately estimates the number of cotton-top tamarins in the wild. See more here.

Please see our website or follow Proyecto Titi on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date on what is happening with cotton-top tamarins in Colombia.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Anne Savage
  • Director Avi Ofer
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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