Tamarins Make a Great Day in the Forest

By Jackie Willis
May 4, 2003
tamarin in a tree
For me, a great day in a tropical forest is one that includes seeing some unusual and beautiful animals. Bright sunshine with cool breezes would be an extra bonus. And a day without chiggers would be really good.

Well, some days from this past season in January were excellent, with perfect weather, and animals clamoring for my attention. Early one day I saw three tamarins that quickly disappeared-- but seeing any at all is a wonderful event. These tiny monkeys are the size of large squirrels, with rather human-like faces, and long dangling tails that are not prehensile. They tilt their heads and closely examine their surroundings,
chattering in some sort of on-going conversation with their friends, and use their hands almost like humans.

Later in the morning I got really lucky. I was standing on a trail, busy writing in my notebook, when I realized there was a commotion all around me. Five tamarins had come down from the canopy and sat on low perches whistling and warbling like canaries. The tamarins didn't just move on by, leaping and chirping as they often do. They sat and looked at me, and I looked at them. They weren't feeding, nor doing anything at all useful in the way we think animals ought to be busy, caring for themselves. They were plainly people-watching. You can see this in this short video.

Many birds and mammals are curious and often observe other species. They may be trying to figure out if the other one is a predator. Then they may "mob" the predator by gathering in a big group and making lots of noises. These noises are usually special alarm calls that warn others of a predator's presence. Many small bird species mob predators, both in the tropics and here at home in New Jersey. I have sometimes found owls or snakes hidden in trees because they were being mobbed. Back home in New Jersey this winter, my neighbor found a great horned owl in the backyard because many small birds were mobbing the owl.

But these tamarins didn't seem to be mobbing. Their noises didn't sound to me like alarm calls. I think it was entertainment for them to watch me, to try to figure what sort of creature I might be. If you want to know more about tamarins, read the Mammal Directory section of the Rainforest Connection website, and see what Dr. Katie Milton has written about Red-Naped Tamarins.