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The cotton-top tamarin is part of the diminutive family of monkeys, Callitrichidae, the marmosets and tamarins; it weighs 432 g (15.2 oz) on average. Its head–body length is 20.8–25.9 cm (8.2–10.2 in) while its tail—which is not prehensile—is slightly longer at around 33–41 cm (13–16 in). The species is not sexually dimorphic, the male and female are of a similar size and weight. Members of the Callitrichinae subfamily (including this species) have sharp nails (tegulae) on all digits except the big toes, which have the flat nails (ungulae) common to other primates. Tegulae resemble a squirrel's claws and help with movement through trees.
The cotton-top tamarin is restricted to a small area of northwest Colombia, between the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers to the South and East, the Atlantic coast to the North, and the Atrato River to the West.
The cotton-top tamarin has a long sagittal crest, consisting of white hairs, from forehead to nape flowing over the shoulders. The skin of the face is black with gray or white bands located above the eyes. These bands continue along the edge of the face down to the jaw.