In the northwestern tropical forests of South America, high in the trees, lives an adorably tiny primate, the size of a squirrel and weighing only a pound. Known locally as “Mono Tití Cabeciblanco”.
Considered one of the most endangered primates in the world and found only in the country of Colombia is the critically endangered Cotton-Top Tamarin.
Aptly named for their striking tuft of white hair on its head. Their face is dark gray or black and adorned with short silvery hairs around the sides of their head and muzzle. Their underparts and arms are white, while their dorsal, or top, side of their body, limbs and tail are dark or reddish brown.
Tamarins are arboreal – meaning they live in trees. Rarely coming down to the forest floor, they live most of their lives 20 – 30 feet above the ground and are rarely noticed by people passing by. They have claw-like nails which help grip branches and a long tail that aids in balance. They run along tree limbs on all fours and may jump nearly 10 feet between branches. Unlike most other primates, tamarins don’t have opposable thumbs.
Cotton-tops live in families of 2-10 individuals. Groups are typically made up of a breeding male and female, their offspring and sometimes unrelated immigrants. The dominant female is able to suppress the fertility of other mature females.
Tamarins often give birth to twins, which weigh about 15-20% of the mother’s body weight. Infants are carried on the back of the adults and all members of the family help care for the babies; a behavior called alloparenting. Other members caring for the infant will transfer it back the mother when it’s time to nurse.
This behavior is important as it is not only essential for the infant’s survival but also teaches vital skills to the “babysitters”. Parental care among tamarins is a learned behavior. If a tamarin has never carried an infant on its back it will likely reject its own offspring.
Members of the group will also take turns being on sentry duty. They keep a look out for predators, which include snakes and birds of prey, while the rest of the family forages for food and cares for the young. Very territorial, they also keep a watch for other nearby tamarins.
Like most monkeys, cotton-top tamarins are very vocal. Researchers have identified 38 different vocalizations. They communicate through bird-like chirps, thrills, whistles, squeals and more. They are able to express things like curiosity, playfulness, fear and warnings. Some sounds are used to communicate with family, some to alert of danger, others are associated with food and more. They may even use their calls to communicate about their food preferences.
While it may sound like seemingly simple chirps, whistles, squeals and other chatter the language of the cotton-tops is surprisingly complex. They use a form a simple grammar and syntax by combining sounds in a specific sequence.
A cotton-tops diet consists of fruit nectar, gum and insects. Tamarins may also be helpful in propagating the rainforests as they disperse seeds through their feces.
The average life expectancy for cotton-top tamarins is 13-16 years.
The biggest threats cotton-tops face is habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. Less than 7,400 individuals remain in the wild.
Urban development is destroying their habitat. While there are international laws condemning it, young cotton-tops are taken from their families for the illegal pet trade and usually don’t receive proper care or nutrition.
In the 60s and 70s, around 20,000-40,000 tamarins were exported to the United States for biomedical research. It was found that cotton-tops spontaneously develop colon cancer, but apparently only in captivity – no wild cotton-top has been found with colon cancer.
Proyecto Tití, a conservation organization founded in 1985 by Dr. Anne Savage, works through scientific and field studies, public education and economic alternatives to help save the cotton-top tamarin in their native regions of South America.
According to the foundation, “the U.S. zoo population has continued to thrive. Through the efforts of the [AZA] Species Survival Plan more than 300 cotton-top tamarins are cooperatively managed in more than 80 U.S. zoos.”
Poison Dart Frogs
The rain forest – a rich concentration of biodiversity and home to one of the most brightly colored animals on the planet.
Small, beautiful and possibly lethal, there are more than 250 species of poison dart frogs living in the forests of Central and South America.
Found in a wide diversity of patterns and rich colors, including yellow, green, blue, red, and gold. These distinct and highly visible markings serve as a warning to any would be predator.
These brightly colored amphibians spend more time on the ground and in the trees than they do in the water, so they have wide, flattened toes to help them grip instead of webbed feet.
In general, most species are small, ranging in size from half an inch to just over an inch long. Some larger varieties can reach a length of nearly two inches.
The poison dart frogs common name is based on the tradition of indigenous tribes of Western Colombia using the frogs toxins on the tips of the darts they would use for hunting.
The poison dart frogs are diurnal which means they feed during the day and sleep at night. They hunt various small invertebrates, including flies, ants, beetles, spiders, and termites.
It is believed that the toxins in the frogs’ bodies may be related to the type and amount of insects that they consume. In environments where their diet is controlled and non poisonous insects are consumed, the frogs do not produce any toxins.
Many species are considered toxic but not deadly to most creatures, including humans. The poison can cause serious swelling, nausea, and muscular paralysis.
In a research study, a relationship was discovered between the brightness of a particular species’ color and the level of toxicity in the secreted poisons. The brighter the colors, the more deadly the frog.
In the wild, the golden poison dart frog is considered the most toxic land animal in the world. It’s toxins are potent enough to kill 10 grown men.
Each poison frog species produces a different kind of toxin and scientists have discovered that some may be beneficial for people with certain health conditions. Poison dart frog secretions may also be used in the development of muscle relaxants and heart stimulants.
Seasonal rainfall can trigger breeding among the frogs, which otherwise can occur anytime throughout the year.
Poison dart frogs display elaborate and diverse mating rituals. The male will lead the female to a site that he has chosen to lay the eggs, usually on plant leaves.
The courtship behaviors can last for several hours and includes a mating “dance” consisting of mutual stroking and cleaning of the surface of the leaves. After the eggs are laid, the pair will usually guard the eggs to make sure that they do not dry out.
Some species, like the strawberry poison dart frog, lay their eggs in leaf-litter or on plants on the rainforest floor. When the tadpoles hatch, one of the parents will coax them to climb onto their back. Then the parent frog transports the tadpoles to small pockets of water in bromeliads or other vegetation, often high in the trees.
The dedicated parent returns periodically through their development to lay unfertilized eggs in the water. These eggs serve as the tadpole’s primary food source.
In a 2014 study, it was found that mother frogs supply their tiny tadpoles with poison. By consuming the eggs provided by their mother, the tadpoles absorb the toxin and become poisonous themselves.
Many poison dart frogs can live for over ten years in human care. The tri-colored poison frog can live up to 20 years.
The population of the poison dart frog species is at risk, due to over-collection for the pet trade, habitat loss and disease. The frogs are susceptible to a fungus infection that essentially suffocates them as they become unable to absorb water and oxygen through their skin, a process essential to the amphibians survival.
The native Tucano tribes of the Amazon believe it’s roar is the sound of thunder; other primitive tribes believe it to be the god of the night, lord of the underworld. This impressive predator is actually the third largest cat in the world. It’s name means “he who kills with one leap” – it is the Jaguar.
A masterful hunter and the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar is the New World equivalent of the leopard with a deeper chest, broader head and larger paws. Male jaguars can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Their tails can be 2 feet long.
Typically found in dense rain forest, and scrubland often near lakes, rivers and wetlands throughout Central and South America. They are both great climbers and excellent swimmers. Like tigers, they are known to cross large rivers even when carrying prey.
Jaguars are the largest predator of the Amazon River basin where the majority of the population is now centered. Their home range once extended as far north as the Southwest United States.
Well known for their beautiful fur, the “spots” on a jaguar are actually black circular markings, called “rosettes.” Along the middle of the jaguar’s back, a row of black spots may merge into a solid line.
Often mistaken for leopards, jaguars have black dots in the middle of many of their rosettes. Leopards do not possess these center dots and tend to have smaller rosette markings along their body. Leopards are also only found in Africa and Southeastern Asia.
Jaguars can be “melanistic”, where they appear almost black. Their fur is actually a dark brown and the black rosettes are still visible in bright light. Melanistic jaguars (and leopards) are often known as “black panthers” – though the panther, or puma, is a different species of feline.
Jaguars are opportunistic hunters and can prey upon almost anything they come across. Capybaras, peccary, deer, monkeys and even tortoises, are among some of the prey that jaguars eat. They are also known to feed upon South America’s largest animal, the tapir, and have been observed stalking and killing large caiman along the river banks.
Unlike other large cats that often attack the victims neck or throat, jaguars with their large and powerful canine teeth will actually puncture the skull of most prey, killing it instantly. The bite of a jaguar is considered the most powerful of all cats.
Jaguars are quite active more than half the day, they hunt both in the day and at night and can travel several miles at night when hunting. They are most active at dusk and dawn.
Jaguars are predominantly solitary. Unlike other solitary cat species, however, home ranges may occasionally overlap. Recent studies in Brazil indicate that males do not show strong aggression or territorial defense against other jaguars when this overlap occurs.
Having no dedicated breeding season the jaguar will mate year round though most births occur during the summer months. Males will pair up with a female and they will typically remain together until after the birth of the young. Females usually have litters of two cubs. The young learn to hunt by living with their mother up to two years.
These impressive cats are the apex predator of the Amazon region and have no predators. Hunting and export are still allowed in some Central American countries and restrictions in other countries are poorly enforced, even if hunting is prohibited.
Demand for their skins has declined since the mid-1970s, unfortunately jaguar paws, teeth and other parts are still sought after, mostly from China for traditional medicine and ornaments.
The biggest threats to their existence is the massive deforestation of many parts of Latin America. As the animals become isolated in the remaining patches of forest, breeding among the species becomes more increasingly difficult.
In addition, as their natural prey reduces in number due to habitat destruction, they will often hunt cattle and other livestock. As a result, ranchers will often kill the jaguar, viewing it as a nuisance pests and threat to their livelihood.
Jaguars can been seen in many zoos, including the popular and striking black jaguar. The Jacksonville Zoo has been home to the jaguar species since the late 50’s and was once home to “Zorro”. Almost all captive born black jaguars found in North America are his descendants.
The world’s first and only park dedicated to the preservation of the jaguar was formed in the Central American country of Belize in 1984. Over 250,000 acres of thick forest land has allowed the jaguar and other key species to thrive there.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their research, education and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Jacksonville Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
San Diego Zoo Global
University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net
World Wildlife Fund
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