Marmoset Diet: Varieties of Food & Foraging Devices


Marmoset Diet and Foraging

We are aware that wild marmosets and tamarins consume a wide variety of foods in their natural environment. According to the findings of my research on the red-bellied tamarins and saddle-backed tamarins that live in Bolivia, the tamarins eat fruits that come from at least 16 different species of trees. In addition to this, they get nectar from flowers belonging to the family Guttiferae and the Symphonia globuliferae and resin from a pod that looks like a bean (family Mimosaceae; Parkia pendula [Willd.] Benth ex Walp.). In addition to this, the majority of their time is spent searching for prey such as insects (Buchanan-Smith, 1990, 1991). Although I have never seen the tamarins consume any other animal material, field data from other species indicates that they consume the eggs of birds, lizards, and frogs among other things (Neyman, 1977; Sussman & Kinsey, 1984).

Because of the variety of foods that make up their natural diet, it is essential that captive populations have access to a wide range of different kinds of food. However, we should keep in mind that in the wild, animals very rarely come across large quantities of food all at once, and most of the time they have to look for it. Foraging is something that happens all throughout the day in the wild, and it can take up as much as 50-60 percent of the time that is available (Garber, 1984; Yoneda, 1984). Therefore, in order to recreate conditions that are more analogous to those that exist in nature, we ought to disperse food throughout the course of the day and make it more difficult to find.

A recent study demonstrated how the introduction of novel foraging devices that are expressly designed to make it harder to secure food treats can have a significant influence on the activity budgets of golden lion tamarins. These devices were designed to make it more difficult to obtain food treats (Leontopithecus rosalia; Molzen and French, 1989).

These animals have been characterized as being extractive foragers, and feeding devices have been developed in order to encourage the development of their extractive foraging abilities. These were food containers that had small holes drilled in them, and inside of them were broken pieces of corn cob along with a few raisins. These devices were suspended approximately 27 centimeters below the top of the cage, and the only way that the tamarins could get access to the raisins was either by hanging upside down by their hind limbs, which they are very proficient at doing, or by sitting on the bowl and grasping one of the device’s suspension wires for support. This was done so that the tamarins would have to use their hind limbs to hang upside down in order to get to the raisins.

As soon as the tamarins realized that the bowls hanging from the ceiling did in fact contain some raisins, the apparatus became the subject of their undivided attention. The tamarins were provided with both a device containing food and one that did not contain food in order to simulate a scenario in which the availability of food was unpredictable. In addition to the regular rations that were provided for the tamarins in ceramic dog bowls, these supplementary feeding devices were also utilized. The behavior of the normal feeding protocols was compared with the behavior of the foraging devices and the normal feeding protocols. The findings indicate that adults spent more time actively exploring the environment, foraging, and traveling, while adults spent less time eating and drinking, and adults rested less, and engaged in fewer social interactions such as grooming, when the device was present as compared to when it was not present. Because the authors did not make a comparison between the activity budgets of wild golden lion tamarins and their captive tamarins, it is unknown whether the changes in behavior profiles drew closer to the activity budgets of the tamarins in their natural habitat. This is because the authors did not make the comparison. The tamarins’ change in behavior, on the other hand, was a welcome development because it allowed them to exercise natural foraging abilities that they had not previously been able to use.

The use of whole apples or oranges speared onto the end of a stick, such as a bamboo cane, and hung from a branch within the cage is yet another straightforward method that can be utilized to extend the amount of time spent acquiring food. In a manner that is analogous to how they would look for food in the wild, marmosets and tamarins hang upside down and spend a significant amount of time biting off pieces of apple or orange (personal observations).

The other method of increasing the amount of time spent foraging, namely scattering food items in wood shavings or other floor coverings, is not as appealing to me as the foraging situations described above (McKensie, Chamove & Feistner, 1986). In the wild, many species of marmosets and tamarins either do not go to the ground very often or, if they do, they do so with extreme caution because they are more likely to be attacked by a predator when they are on the ground. Unless it is known for certain that the species does, in fact, go to the ground regularly and for extended periods of time in the wild, I do not believe that this method of increasing the amount of time spent foraging should be encouraged in captivity. When I observed tamarins in Bolivia, I found that they avoided going lower than about two to three meters into the forest canopy at all costs. In this context, it is important to note that careful thought should be given to the placement of food dishes within the enclosure where the animal will be housed. In a recent study on cotton-top tamarins, it was discovered that group members who were carrying young were hesitant to approach food dishes that were located close to the ground. This problem was solved by elevating the food dishes at least one meter above the ground; as a result, mother tamarins with their young were able to approach the dishes with ease and feed their young (Snowdon & Savage, 1989). In addition, if a meal is served in two different sets of dishes to members of a larger group, there is less likelihood of competition between the individuals in the group, and each person is more likely to consume a diet that is more nutritionally diverse and an equal share of the foods that they prefer (Price & McGrew, 1989).

My last point concerning diet and foraging pertains to the consumption of gum by marmosets. Marmosets have teeth that are uniquely adapted for the process of gnawing holes in trees and extracting the gum that comes out of those holes, which they then consume. According to the findings of one study conducted on the pygmy marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea), these monkeys devote 32 percent of their total activity time to the acquisition and consumption of gum (Ramirez, Freese & Revilla, 1977). The natural behavior of marmosets, in which they consume gum while foraging in the wild, has inspired the creation of a straightforward and inexpensive sap feeder. This feeder resembles sections of dowel that have been drilled along their length to create holes, which are then stuffed with gum arabic. Common marmosets, Callithrix jacchus, that are kept in captivity quickly learn to gnaw on this apparatus in order to extract gum arabic using the same wide variety of gum foraging patterns that they would use in the wild (McGrew, Brennan & Russell, 1986).

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