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New at the Zoo: Emperor Tamarins

Meet Fleck and Poe, a pair of emperor tamarin brothers who recently made their debut in Amazonia’s rainforest habitat! Get to know these mischievous monkeys from animal keeper Denny Charlton.

What are your favorite facts about emperor tamarins?

I have to start with their amazing mustache—it is a very endearing trait of this species!

Another fun fact is that emperor tamarins have very tight-knit family units. Offspring typically stay with their parents until they are about 1.5 to 2 years of age. Up until that time, they watch their parents care for their younger siblings and even have a hand in raising them, which helps them learn the skills necessary to be great parents in the future.

How do you tell them apart?

Their mustaches! Fleck has a bigger, bushier mustache, and Poe’s is smaller and more rounded. And, their vocalizations are different. Fleck is very loud. If you ever hear them calling to one another in the forest, it is likely Fleck that you hear. Poe, on the other hand, has a very soft call. This may be because Fleck is older and the more dominant of the two. However, that could change once Poe hits sexual maturity.

A small monkey, called an emperor tamarin, with dark fur, little ears and a long, curled, whispy, white "mustache" is perched in a tree with its mouth open in a call.

What do you enjoy most about working with them?

Their fearlessness! It is amazing to watch them explore and engage with this habitat just as they would in the wild. Our team built a great trail system with vines over the path. The boys had a bit of a learning curve when it came to balancing on the vines and some of the smaller tree limbs, but they have mastered navigating their environment now.

What are their personalities like?

Fleck is the older of the two, and he is much more calm and focused than his younger brother. He is usually the first to the food pan at feeding time, and is eager to train and shift on and off exhibit when keepers ask. Poe, on the other hand, is more easily distracted and prone to wander. He is the more curious of the two, always looking around the next leaf to see what there is to find to eat. This is a natural foraging behavior that they do in the wild, too. While Poe is more focused on the food, Fleck seems to be more interested in the birds and people around him.

Prior to coming to the Zoo, Fleck and Poe had only lived with their parents. To be in an environment where there are birds, monkeys, a sloth and live trees is an entirely new experience.

A small monkey, called an emperor tamarin, with dark fur, little ears and a long, curled, whispy, white "mustache" is perched in a tree

How are they acclimating to the forest?

This is the first time Fleck and Poe have been in such an expansive exhibit. To help the introduction go smoothly, they stayed in an enclosure where they could see and hear the forest, but did not have full access to it, for a few days.

Once they seemed comfortable, we did “howdy” introductions between the boys and our titi monkey pair, Henderson and Kingston, with a mesh barrier in between. Since these encounters were mostly positive, we opened their enclosure. They have been exploring their forest ever since. Occasionally, there have been skirmishes between Kingston and the tamarins, but she tends to be more territorial when it comes to space. Henderson just watches their interactions from afar.  

Have they met the two-toed sloth?

Yes, they have met Howie, our two-toed sloth. At first, I don’t think they realized Howie was alive. After all, he is usually stationary or moving very, very slowly. At one point, Howie turned his head, which spooked Poe and caused him to fall out of the tree. Po was fine and immediately climbed back up, but there was quite a bit of alarm calling between the tamarins! For his part, Howie didn’t react to them at all. To him, their calls are just another sound in the forest.

A small monkey, called an emperor tamarin, with dark fur, little ears and a long, curled, whispy, white "mustache" is perched in a tree

What do our emperor tamarins eat?

As they are foraging in the forest, they are on the lookout for small insects—mostly katydids, millipedes, crickets or ants. During husbandry training sessions, they also receive small pieces of grapes, papaya and bananas as a reward for voluntarily doing the behaviors asked of them.

What behaviors are they learning during training sessions?

Fleck and Poe are learning a variety of husbandry behaviors that help us monitor their health and care for them. They picked up scale training right away, allowing us to monitor their weights and adjust their diets as necessary. They have also mastered recall training—returning to their enclosure whenever a keeper rings a bell. Target training (touching their noses to a target) and station training (holding still in one spot for a short period of time) are works in progress, but they are doing quite well with both of those behaviors. Last but not least, we have started crate training—asking them to enter a crate. This can help reduce stress should one of them ever need to be transported to the veterinary hospital. Fleck and Po always have the choice to participate in the training or walk away. But, for the most part, they opt to do so, especially since the know they will receive their favorite fruits as a reward!

Will Fleck and Poe be introduced to females?

Not in the immediate future. The Species Survival Plan population currently has more than double the number of males compared to females. In four of five years down the road, one of them may receive a breeding recommendation. But, for now, we are fortunate that we have the space to house our two boys.

Do they have a favorite hangout spot?

Generally, visitors can catch a glimpse of Fleck and Poe as soon as they enter the forest at the top of the stairs. That is where their nest box and food are located, so they spend most of their time in that area. They don’t stray far and rarely venture to the other end of the forest. The best time to see them is between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., especially in the morning when they are most active!

This story was featured in the December 2019 issue of National Zoo News. Planning a visit to see Fleck and Poe? While you’re in Amazonia, don’t miss the fish feeding at 11 a.m. and electric fishes demonstration at 1 p.m. Check out these and other animal encounters on the Zoo’s website.