you're reading...
Special Post

Movember Special: Moustachioed Monkey

So it’s that time of year again – when many a Brit’s stiff upper lip is hirsute for a good cause. Of course, we’re over half way through Movember now – and this month men from across the nation (and in 20 other countries around the world) have been growing moustaches to raise awareness for men’s health issues. As my own attempts to grow my own tash have always been so shameful (picture a sickly, balding, ginger caterpillar skulking below my nose); this year I decided to do my bit by dedicating a blog post to a creature with a long and luxurious lip wig.

The Monkey with the Majestic Moustache: the Emperor Tamarin by Ltshears

The Monkey with the Majestic Moustache: the Emperor Tamarin by Ltshears

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Emperor Wilhelm II by Voigt T H

The emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator) (above) has one of the most striking soup strainers in nature. This distinctive white facial hair, which can extend beyond its shoulders, is alleged to have given this species its name. Supposedly this monkey’s moustache was thought to resemble the unquestionably imposing whiskers of the German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941) (right). However, impressive as the Kaiser’s mo clearly was (and definitely more than anything I’ve ever managed to grow), I personally think that the emperor tamarin still wins hands down!

Living in the rainforests of the southwest Amazonian basin, emperor tamarins form extended family groups of four to eighteen individuals. Each group is dominated by the one breeding female. These groups forage for fruits and flowers, as well as, eat tree sap and gums (which are likely not as tasty as wine gums). Some also boost their diets with animal prey, including insects and frogs.

Baby's first whiskers: juvenille emperor tamarin by Brocken Inaglory

Baby’s first whiskers: juvenille emperor tamarin by Brocken Inaglory

Emperor tamarins are seasonal breeders, and tend to time giving birth to coincide with the glut of food during the wet season. These moustached primates were once thought to have exclusive (monogamous) pairings. However, their relationship status can only truthfully be described as: “It’s complicated”. Emperor tamarins actually have a so-called ‘polyandrous’ mating system; whereby the dominant female mates with multiple males (poly = many, androus = relating to males / husbands). In doing so, she ensures a good start for her offspring. Because the infants – which start to grow their characteristic cookie dusters at an early age – might be carrying a male’s genes into next generation; the potential baby-daddies invest lots of effort into helping raise the young. This additional care greatly improves the offspring’s chances of survival – especially as emperor tamarin parenting is a demanding task. These monkeys have high rates of twins and multiple births, and their young are relatively large when compared to the adults. Also, these extra ‘helpers’ are often more protective of the babies than the mother is, and more watchful for predators.

So, although these rather distinguished-looking monkeys might resemble elderly aristocratic gentlemen, they are really thoroughly modern males spending time and effort in raising their own (and probably other males’) children.


Rylands, A.B. & Mittermeier, R.A. 2008. Saguinus imperator. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. <>. Downloaded on 17 November 2013.


About StuartKing

Hi, I'm Stuart, an Assistant Features Editor at eLife and recent life sciences PhD graduate. I blog about evolution and its weird and wonderful creations.


One thought on “Movember Special: Moustachioed Monkey

  1. Just realised that this was probably the perfect place to bring up the “Monkey-tail: Beard or Moustache?” Debate…

    Posted by StuartKing | November 28, 2013, 10:09 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: