September 20, 1995
Web Posted at 10:20 a.m. EDT (1420 GMT)
From Correspondent Ann Kellan
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (CNN) -- Children visiting Roger Williams Park Zoo are fascinated to learn that three cotton top tamarins have been let out of their cages for the summer, giving them a hint of life in the wild for the first time in their lives.
But finding the little creatures is not as easy as when they were in a cage. "I saw something jump over -- no, that's too little," a youngster said recently as a group searched. "They have a cotton top on their head," said one child. "They dye their hair so they can tell them apart," said another.
The zoo has dyed the topknots of two family members. The mother, Cass, is brunette while the baby, Jeb, is a red-head. Dad Ringo is the only one with his natural blond hair color. "Ringo, I think, is incredibly handsome," said researcher Anne Savage. "He's such a nice guy and he's he really takes care of the kids, defends his family. One of the things they do, they share food with their kids." (A look at these animals in action. 898K QuickTime movie)
Because the family sticks together, only Ringo wears a radio transmitter to keep track of their whereabouts. The trio won't leave the zoo, Savage said: "Why waste the energy? The best restaurant is town is right here."
According to Savage, cotton tops -- now an endangered species in their native South America -- may hold clues for cures of human illnesses. For example, the number one killer of cotton tops in captivity is colon cancer; that's not true in the wild. "We're not sure whether it's a dietary issue, whether there's something in the wild that protects them from getting colon cancer or it's something we're doing here in captivity that promotes the occurrence of cancer," Savage said.
Another difference between the tamarins in Rhode Island and their wild cousins is that in the wild a female cotton top gives birth to twins once a year. In captivity they get pregnant every 28 days. "Well, cotton top tamarins appear to be able to regulate their fertility in the wild. That we can't quite figure out," Savage said.
Savage has spent her adult life teaching others about cotton tops at Roger Williams Park and in Colombia, the only place in the world where cotton top tamarins live in the wild. According to Savage there are only 3,000 left. "Ninety percent of the people we surveyed (in Colombia) had no idea that cotton top tamarins were the most endangered primates in their country," she said.
Savage believes that education about these tamarins should be a priority, and that there are benefits to saving cotton tops beyond environmental preservation. For example, the Colombian project created jobs in which citizens teach others ways of keeping cotton tops from becoming extinct.
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