Home Primates ABC Pied tamarin


Pied tamarins are characterised by their black hairless head and ears. Their chest and arms are white and they have a brownish back. Their tail is dark brown on the outside and orangey on the inside. Males and females look the same. The contrast between their black head, white collar and brown back is what gives them the name pied. Their bodies vary in size between 21-28 cm and their tails are longer: 33-42 cm. They have olfactory glands on their chest and genitals. Rather than flat nails, they have claws (except on the opposable thumbs on their feet).


They live in primary and secondary rainforests, lowland forests and on the edges of swamps. They inhabit a small area near to the large city of Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.


Pied tamarins do not live in the kind of classical family groups that many other marmosets live in. Instead, they live in multimale-multifemale family groups of 2-12 individuals. Most groups of pied tamarins in the wild consist of multiple adults, non-related males and females. The most common composition is one adult female with several males (polyandry). This is a very uncommon lifestyle among primates! They also live in groups of one male and multiple females and groups consisting of one male and one female also occur, but these types of groups are not the most common. So there is a lot of variation. It is not precisely clear what factors determine this variation.


The dominant female of the group is the one who reproduces, usually having twins. Other females lower in the hierarchy are often sexually repressed by the dominant female. The dominant female’s urine contains a substance called a pheromone. Lower ranking females smell the scent in this substance and is suppresses their ovulation. The fathers carry newborn infants around and the infants only go to the mother to suckle. All the animals in the group take care of the young, including non-related adult males.


Pied tamarins use some very particular ways to communicate with each other. For example, ‘tongue flicking’, which is when they move their tongue rapidly in and out of their mouth over their lips. This can be a sign of recognition, or an expression of anger or curiosity. Tongue flicking is often combined with head flicking, which is when they bob their head up and down rapidly. In addition, pied tamarins use their olfactory glands and urine to mark their territory. Unlike other marmosets, who have specially adapted teeth (in their lower jaw), these tamarins cannot easily bite into branches because of their larger canine teeth. This is also reflected in the amount of gum in their diet.

Situation in the wild

The city of Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, has a population of approximately two million. It is constantly expanding due to the increase of agricultural areas and cattle farms. This means the pied tamarins’ already tiny habitat is being reduced further and further. Which is why pied tamarins are increasingly being spotted in damaged forests and in the gardens of suburban Manaus villas.

They face a biological threat in the form of increasing competition with red-handed tamarins (one of the most common marmoset species). This species, which is probably better able to cope with the disruption of its habitat, is spreading across wider and wider areas. Most species of marmosets are often illegally kept as pets.

At Apenheul

At Apenheul we currently have one male and we are on the lookout for a companion for him. The coordinator of the European breeding programme is undertaking this.

Breeding programme 

Apenheul is part of the EEP European breeding programme for pied tamarins. By working together with other zoos we ensure a genetically healthy and demographically stable population of this species is maintained in zoos.

Fun facts

  • Pied tamarins are more susceptible to stress than other marmosets and are more easily affected by changes, in the wild as well as in captivity. This makes breeding them more difficult than other marmosets. Only a few zoos host them.
  • Research has shown that clawed monkeys (except Goeldi’s monkeys, Callimico goeldii) have a gene for twins. When the females ovulate, they release two or more eggs, so the twins are always dizygotic. What is remarkable is that at the beginning of the pregnancy, the placentas of the two embryos grow together or merge. Because the two placentas become connected by blood vessels, the twins share the same blood flow (blood cells move from one twin to the other). This was reported in a scientific paper published in PNAS in January 2014. This had already been described in detail in 2005 in Apenheul’s quarterly magazine ‘Zomaar’ by then director Bert de Boer. Moreover, he also concluded the following from his own chromosome study of clawed monkeys: ‘Due to the fact that in half of the cases the dizygotic twins have different sexes (in the other of the cases the twins are either both male or both female), half of all clawed monkeys have both XX and XY cells in their blood.’