After 30 years, tamarins ride off into retirement

Jan. 28, 2009

by Terry Devitt

At an institution like UW-Madison, good research programs ebb and flow, the vagaries of funding and the involvement of the people who drive them. But sometimes ramping down a program of research presents special problems that require extraordinary actions for closure. Such was the dilemma for Chuck Snowdon, a professor of psychology who for decades has studied the behavior of the cottontop tamarin, an endangered New World primate.

[photo] tamarin

The cottontop tamarin has been a part of Chuck Snowdon’s research program for more than 30 years. Due to the vagaries of funding, Snowdon has ended his research with the animals and for the past year has successfully sought new homes for the monkeys.

Photo: Bryce Richter

The behavioral studies conducted by Snowdon and his students, including many undergraduates (more than 30 of whom were co-authors on publications with Snowdon), have helped underpin captive breeding programs for the rare monkeys and have peeled away some of the mystery of a primate species that, in some key respects, resembles the human. They live in families and form strong pair bonds. Fathers and siblings share in the responsibilities of raising the young, and they have a vocal communication repertoire that is among the most varied and complex of any primate species. They are also quick learners, faster on the uptake in some ways than our closest primate relative, the chimp. Snowdon’s acquired knowledge of the tamarin’s familial nature even garnered the psychology professor invitations to address meetings of family therapists.

But after 31 years of continuous funding for his research, Snowdon learned the non-invasive behavioral studies he favors were out of synch with the direction his funding agency preferred. Instead of devising a new research program, Snowdon opted to retire his colony of 75 animals. For the last year, with big assists from the College of Letters and Science and the Research Animal Resources Center, Snowdon and his group sought homes for the animals at undergraduate institutions, zoos and sanctuaries, successfully placing all of the animals and even contributing toward the construction of “Tamarin Town” at a Florida sanctuary.

Snowdon, who confesses to undergoing withdrawal from his now-dispersed colony, says finding good homes for all of the animals was difficult: “It took a lot of work. Three really dedicated staff members, even though they were going to be out of jobs, worked for a year to find homes for these animals.”

[photo] Snowden


Photo: Bryce Richter

Recently, Snowdon took the time to answer questions about his work, the tamarins and their placement.

Wisconsin Week: Why did you choose the cottontop tamarin as your model system?

Snowdon: The tamarins chose me. I was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley, and my colleague there had a small colony of these endangered monkeys, which she could no longer support. I was intrigued by their behavior and offered to take them, and so in 1977 11 tamarins were sent to Madison. From this start we built our colony.

WW:What makes them a good research model?

CS: There are several interesting aspects to them. They live in family groups similar to those of human families. Fathers and older brothers are especially interested in taking care of infants, so we can learn about family dynamics and what leads males to be involved in infant care. Mothers often give birth to twins, which allows the use of one twin as a control for another in research.

They also have the most complex and elaborate vocal repertoire known to date in nonhuman primates and also use olfactory communication extensively so we can learn about functions and development of communication.

Finally, as a species critically endangered in its native habitat, they can serve as a model for how to successfully maintain captive populations and to learn what monkeys need to know to survive in a natural environment.

WW:What was the focus of your research with these animals?

CS: Our research focused on understanding families: how pair bonds are formed and maintained, what hormonal and behavioral mechanisms lead males to be involved in infant care, and how parents reward offspring for their role as helpers with infant care. We have studied the function of olfactory and vocal signals, when they are used, what they communicate, and how signals develop from infancy. We studied the role of learning in social behavior to find that tamarins can learn from each other more rapidly than chimpanzees and most other monkeys.

Tamarins must learn infant-care skills by actively caring for other infants before they become breeders, and they show long-term memory (in the range of years) for calls of familiar individuals and for tasks they learned. Tamarins show no fear to calls, smells or sights of natural predators suggesting that learning about predators is necessary if they are to be reintroduced to the wild.

WW:How have they contributed to our understanding of human health and development?

CS: The tamarins taught us what contributes to forming and maintaining a strong relationship between mates, how fathers can be induced to be more involved with their infants, and how both mothers and fathers are changed behaviorally and physiologically when they become parents. They have taught us how to maximize the ability of learning from others and about the origins of teaching.

They have illustrated the importance of odor in communication. Several recent studies on humans confirm that odor is a neglected but important part of our communication. They have taught us about family dynamics and the importance of affiliation and reward, rather than punishment, in maintaining strong families.

The tamarins illustrate the importance of what can be learned from an endangered species, and they remind us that our human well-being is intricately tied to the well-being of other species and their habitats. The students and staff who have worked directly with the tamarins have had their lives enriched and career goals set by their experiences, and visitors to the many zoos that have monkeys from Madison are able to learn more about tamarins and care about their survival.

WW:Where are these animals now, and why did you have to disperse the colony?

CS: The animals are in three different undergraduate institutions, several zoos and some of the oldest animals are in sanctuaries. It became apparent from reviews of extramural grant applications that to be successfully funded we would be expected to do more invasive research than we wanted to do. The lab staff and I unanimously agreed that we would prefer to stop our work and disperse the colony to maintain the integrity of our monkeys.

WW:How difficult was it to find good retirement homes for the tamarins? How many did you place?

CS: With the financial and moral support of the Research Animal Resources Center and the College of Letters and Science dean’s office, we placed all 75 monkeys in good homes. These range from undergraduate institutions where new generations of students will learn how to use noninvasive research methods to work with nonhuman primates, to zoos across the country where the monkeys will serve as focal points for conservation education and to sanctuaries for the older of the monkeys. My colleagues worked hard to identify and screen institutions so that we could be confident the animals would be well cared for. In the 30 years before the lab closed, we donated 227 additional monkeys to zoos and other non-invasive research facilities.

WW:Why was it so important for you to disperse the colony as you did?

CS: Generations of students and staff have invested considerable effort in maintaining a healthy and humanely run colony. We worked hard to develop methods of good husbandry and captive housing for these endangered animals and we wanted to ensure that each monkey would receive the same standard of quality care for the rest of its life.

WW:I understand these animals have a shoe fetish. Can you explain that?

CS: For some reason the monkeys are very interested in what we wear on our feet and become upset when a familiar person is wearing unfamiliar footwear. The tamarins look at our faces and then at our shoes, and faces and shoes together seem to be their way of recognizing familiar people.