Why the Emperor Tamarin population is thought to be declining

Emperor tamarin is a diminutive tree-dwelling monkey species endemic to the dense tropical forests of South America; Peru, western Brazil, and north-western Bolivia.

Interestingly, this enchanting animal is thought to have acquired its name thanks to its elegant white and curly moustache which extends to both sides beyond its shoulders and supposedly resembles that of Wilhelm II – a German emperor.

Mustachioed Monkees

Capability to climb from tree branches using their limbs plus their strong, long and sometimes prehensile tail is just one of the interesting characteristics of the Neotropical primates.

In the wild, Emperor Tamarins are playful, active, rapid, graceful and friendly. In captivity, they’re interactive with people and social. Read on for detailed information about the habitat, appearance, behaviour and conservation of this captivating mammal.

Subspecies of Emperor Tamarin

Emperor Tamarin is divided into two subspecies; Black chinned emperor tamarin – Saguinus imperator imperator and bearded emperor tamarin (Alucy) – imperator subgrisescens.

Black chinned emperor tamarin

– the animal has claws in all of its fingers and toes apart from its big toe which has a strong nail. Whilst the black chinned emperor tamarin has a definite long moustache it also has almost unnoticeable short and white hairs on its chin. And just like the name suggests saguinus imperator’s chin is black while the fur on the chest plus the belly is a light mixture of white, orange and red hair.

The fur on its back is dark brown and the inner part of the limbs is orange-like.

Bearded emperor tamarin

it typically boasts the same biological characteristics as the aforementioned subspecies the only slight distinction being the variation of colour on the arms, belly and chest.

Also, imperator subgrisescens has a long definitive white-haired beard contrary to that of Saguinus imperator imperator which boasts faint black whiskers on the chin.

Appearance and habits of Emperor Tamarin

In addition to their neat moustache, this dwarf monkey can easily be recognised by its fur which is mottled grey and black with partially yellow patches on the chest, the legs and hands are black and the tail is brown.

Emperor tamarin is social gathering in family groups of 2 to 15 members and it communicates with tongue flicking, chirps, facial expressions or whistles which keep the troop together. However, the most interesting form of communication is through scents.

Basically, tamarins are super territorial and react quite firmly if competitors come in the vicinity. In addition to shrill sounds, these tiny monkeys use high-pitched chirps to warn trespassers and they mark their territory by leaving scents on tree branches and leaves.

Although male emperor tamarins are generally larger than the females the groups are typically under the leadership of the oldest female in the lush tree-covered tropical forests. The female in charge usually maintains mating relationship with all or most of the males of her harem.

They usually have territories stretching up to 30 -40 ha which is under patrol at all times to defend it from other tamarins species and competitors.

In spite of the fact that they live in groups primarily consisting of emperor tamarins, they occasionally mingle with Saddle-back tamarins especially because their food scavenging groups frequently join together.

Emperor tamarins London Zoo

Usually, the emperor tamarins are fond of sticking higher in the canopy (often above 10m) while saddle-back tamarins stick to 10m and below.

Vocalizations are a significant part of the emperor tamarin’s communication system as these sounds usually help them recognise their friends and alert them to potential predators.

Emperor tamarins are non-nocturnal and active throughout the day but spend most of their time high in the canopy grooming each other’s body (which builds bonds among family members) and hardly descending to the floor of the forest where they can be easily exposed to their predators. The agile primates are famed for their quick leaps from one tree to the other.

Tamarin communities roll up together when they sleep mostly in large detached trees. Every group consists of a mother, father, their offspring as well as migratory individuals. The offspring eventually leave their natal group to join other exiting groups or start their own.

Diet of Emperor Tamarins

Most species of Tamarins are omnivores and Emperor Tamarin is not exempted. They live off at diet of plant-based food (which are readily available thanks to their flourishing vegetable habitats) , invertebrates and insects. Their most preferred food includes nectar, tree gum, insects, flowers and fruits.

However, if they get desperately hungry, they might go for tree frogs or cheekily steal bird’s eggs from nests. The food option is also based on which part of the forest they’re located in.

The dominant female that leads the hierarchy of emperor tamarins is in charge of forming foraging troops which benefits members of the group as it increases the chances of landing quality food sources.

Actually, some researchers speculate that female are primarily scavengers of food particularly flowers and fruits due to their enhanced abilities to see more colours than their male counterparts. However, this research was not conclusive and further findings revealed that both male and female possess equal abilities in locating food patches.  Nonetheless, females are more dominant as far as hunting for food goes.

Weddell’s saddle-back tamarins are faster and better in food hunting, one of the main reasons why the emperor tamarin follows their lead in food foraging. This food hunting strategy is beneficial to both species as the mixed troops provide extra security from the predators.

During the rainy season, Amazonian lowland enjoys abundance of water mostly due to flooding and overflowing of the nearby water sources. This results to humid tropical climate year-round and this contributes to an abundance of vegetation.

In wet season, there are fewer flowers and more leaves while in dry season the situation is vice versa and this affects the diet of emperor tamarins.

Although they prefer mid to high canopy, they occasionally descend to lower levels in search of particular fruits and thanks to their sharp but firm claws they’re perfect at gouging tree trunks in search of one of their favourite delicacies – gum.

Mating Habits of Emperor Tamarin

The emperor tamarins display a polyandrous mating system whereby a female breeds with several males and it’s up to the female emperor tamarin to choose where, when and with whom to mate. The mating system warrant paternal support from all the males she mates with as they’re more likely to get involved in the rearing of the offspring because of the possibility of the infant carrying their genes.

Male emperor tamarins spend most of their time with infants and are more protective mostly carrying for the twin offspring while the female forages. They also respond fast to infant distress compared to females.

Female emperor tamarin uses her tongue to make specific chirping sounds to signal sexual interest which is accompanied by sticking out of her tongue at the male she wants to mate with.

The mating season of the wild emperor tamarin species is between April and May. They have a gestation period of 140 – 150 days and almost always they give birth to twins although triplet births aren’t unusual.

These animals exercise communal care where all the members of the group including siblings and migratory individuals take part in rearing the infants.

Infant tamarins begin to move independently between 2 – 5 weeks after birth, they start feeding on solids between 4 – 7 weeks old and compete weaning happen within 15 to 25 weeks.

After three months when the young ones are completely weaned off milk and introduced to solid, this period is the most dangerous as they face the risk of falling off the canopy. If they survive this stage they mature and they set off to join new group or create their own by the age of 2 years.  The reproductive maturity is typically 2 years and the lifespan is between 8 years and 17 years.

Tamarins are mostly busy and spend the best part of the day foraging for food, leaping between the floor of the forest and the top of canopy.

They’re in constant movement depending on their agility to gather fruits, insects and flowers most of which are beyond reach of the other monkeys.

These little mammals spend all their lives cooperating with other group members, foraging for food, sleeping together and protecting their territories.

How Emperor Tamarin is adapted to its environment

With the temperatures in the South America rainforest ranging between 35°C during the day, 21°C at night and the annual rainfall averaging between 80 – 400mm, this part of the world doesn’t experience seasonal changes and this means fruits, flowers and leaves are produced year-round.  These conditions provide ample food for the tamarins helping them to thrive.

While most monkey species inhabit the massive tropical rainforest of South America, the emperor is probably the most adaptive of them all utilizing a variety of survival strategies than any of their relatives.

There are a few fascinating adaptations that make Emperor Tamarin perfectly suited to its arboreal habitat;

  • With an adult Emperor Tamarin weighing about 300g – 400g, body size of 19 – 25cm and with a tail 35cm – 42cm long, the animal is super lightweight, and this allows it to forage for insects and fruits even on the outermost tips of branches.
  • Weighing barely a pound and hardly beyond 10 inches in length, emperor tamarin is one of the smallest rainforest monkeys but what the tinny animal lacks in size is amply compensated for in agility, speed, sharp eyesight and raw intelligence.
  • Being in possession of longer back limbs than other species of tamarins, emperors are speedy plus more agile in locomotion which is one of the reasons why they remain socially dominant among the competing tamarin species.
  • The combination of all the five digits of both the fore and rear limbs to leap between the top of the canopy enables this charming animal to cover huge swaths of tropical forests despite their small body size.
  • Emperor tamarins are exceptionally great in climbing up, down and even vertically, thanks to their claws that provide that extra grip.
  • Their tiny bodies also come in handy when they need to hide from their predators or grab their insects prey in a swift manner. Additionally, the small size makes it easy for them to be leapers, jumping from one tree to the other in a stealthy way.
  • Their long tails act as a fifth limb gripping and allowing the monkey to swing on tree branches hands-free. Now, although the tails are not as gripping or even prehensile as of other monkeys, their flexible and long tails allow them to move with incredible agility and balance allowing them to jump/leap great lateral distance between tree canopies.
  • Two-third females of emperor tamarin’s species exhibit trichromacy characteristic which is the ability to distinguish about 3 different colours. This makes it easier for them to detect ripe fruits. Other individuals are dicromats with ability to distinguish only two different colours.
  • Emperor tamarins are quite organised and instead of moving from one area to another in search of food these monkey troops feed side by side migrating from one feeding sport to another in coordinated tandem.
  • These frugivorous animals are believed to contribute to seed dispersal (they fetch a fruit from one corner of the forest to the other and if they drop a seed, it may end up germinating into a new tree) an exercise that’s significant to forest regeneration.

Why the Emperor Tamarin population is thought to be declining

Although the emperor tamarin species isn’t currently endangered and it’s classified as Least Concern (LC) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) their exact number is unknown but it’s believed that, the population is declining by the day due to loss of habitat as the forests are cleared for logging, human settlement or even cattle ranching particularly in Peru.

In addition, there are no known conservation efforts directed towards this fascinating species of primates.

The biggest threat to this species is destruction of their natural habitats as a result of human development and large-scale construction of major roadway between Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

They’re also caught in the mix of illegal pet trading business. Their fascinating moustache and quirky appearance draw intrigue from people.

Although most of the Peruvian Amazon has been widely deforested for agriculture and natural resources such as wood, the emperor tamarin habitats are still large enough for the species to thrive.

Due to the fairly small size of the Emperor tamarins they have quite a number of predators within their natural surroundings. Birds of prey, wild cats, snakes and dogs are primarily predators and of course the humans who destroy their habitats.

These little monkeys are actually believed to be amazing pets owing to their affectionate and playful nature. In addition, they seem pretty comfortable even in captivity. If they’re looked after well, they make unique and super joyful pets although this may not be the best option for the conservation of the specie.

These amusing mammals may be as tiny as a squirrel but it’s one of the nature’s happiest and interactive creatures.

Emperor tamarins are located in reserved area in Bolivia at Manuripi-Heath Amazonian Wildlife National Reserve and in Peru at Manú National Park but there no reserved areas in Brazil with the population of emperor tamarin species.

Manú National Park in Peru provides protection of the natural habitat of the species and it’s considered as one of the most important reserved areas due to its strategic location within the greatest biodiversity.


  • What does emperor tamarin eat? They eat small insects, fruits and some other parts of the tree.
  • How big is emperor tamarin? Between 200 and 400g.
  • What is the world population of the emperor tamarin? The population is currently believed to be large and stable and although there is no definite figure stated it’s speculated that this number is declining by the day.



Image sources