Golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas)

Also known as: Gold and black lion tamarind
Spanish: Tamarino León De Cabeza Dorada
GenusLeontopithecus (1)
SizeHead-and-body length: 22 – 26 cm (2)
Tail length: 33 – 40 cm (3)
Weight480 – 700 g (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN B2ab(i-v); C2a(i)) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1), and listed on Appendix 1 of CITES (4).

The golden-headed lion tamarin’s name describes its striking appearance perfectly. The thick, long golden to orange mane around its face is indeed reminiscent of a male lion’s mane (3). When in danger or defending its territory, this tamarin raises its fantastic mane and fluffs up its fur to give it the appearance of being bigger than it really is, whilst flicking its tongue at the intruder to scare them away (5). Females and males are very similar in appearance, as are the young, but unlike most other primates, it is the adult female that is usually larger than the adult male (6). The body is predominantly shiny and black, with golden to orange limbs and paws, and a black and golden coloured, long tail (7). Its fore and hind limbs are similar in size, allowing it to move quadrupedally through the forest (6). Their fingers are long and dextrous and, like all callitrichids, the nails have evolved into claws on all but the big toe, which has a flattened nail, allowing them to climb in a squirrel-like fashion through the trees (2) (3) (5).

Just 2-5 % of the golden-headed lion tamarin’s original habitat remains in Brazil (3). This species is now only found in the east of Brazil, in the southern portion of Bahia (2) (3) (7). Here, the majority are confined to the protected Una Biological Reserve (3). They were originally found much more widely across eastern Brazil; today, surviving populations are scattered and thinly distributed (7).

This species inhabits dense primary lowland and high-elevation forest (2). They exploit the forest in the early stages of succession for food but also depend on tall, mature forest for their sleeping holes, which are originally dug out by woodpeckers (5).

Like other lion tamarins, golden-headed-lion tamarins are diurnal. They feed mainly on fruits, and play an important role in seed dispersal. They also feed on flowers and nectar (2), and prey on small animals such as frogs, snails, lizards and spiders, and may opportunistically feed on gums, saps and latex from trees (3) (5). Animal prey is found in the forest floor litter and in the trees, in holes and crevices, and by breaking rotting wood to find large insects (6) (8). Their long hands and slender fingers help with this method of foraging (3) (5).

These social monkeys live in small groups of about 2 – 11 individuals (average 5 – 8) in low densities of 0.5-1 group per km². There can be more than one adult male and female in the group but only one female actually breeds (7) (8). The other females’ reproduction is suppressed by the behavioural domination by the reproductive female, and by the effects of her pheromones and genital gland scent (5). Males and other group members play a major role in caring for the young (9). The co-operative breeding system of callitrichids appears to be unique amongst primates, and serves to help the breeding female care for the offspring (6). Lactation and feeding the young demands a great deal of energy, and so males and other group members often carry the young, allowing the female more time to forage and feed, while other members of the group also help by surrendering food morsels to the young and breeding female (6). This explains why the female is usually larger in size than the male. In fact research suggests that smaller males are often preferred mating partners by the females as they are more nimble in the forest and therefore better food gatherers (5).

Like other callitrichids, this lion tamarin usually gives birth to twins (3) (7). Gestation period is 125-130 days (9), and the offspring are born 9 – 15 % of the mother’s weight, which is considerably heavier than those of other primates. They are carried everywhere rather than being left in nests (7). Once established as breeders in a group, a female can produce twins once a year, and sometimes twice (7).

Golden-headed lion tamarins are among the world’s most critically endangered mammals (8). Their habitat is one of the first to be cleared because they live in lowland forests. Currently only 2-5% of its original habitat remains (3), the rest being removed for timber or charcoal, and to make way for plantations, cattle pasture, and industry (7). Eastern and South-eastern Brazil was also one of the first areas to be colonised almost 500 years ago and is now one of the most densely inhabited areas in Brazil, exerting huge pressures on the land’s resources (5) (8). Critically low numbers in the wild are due almost exclusively to habitat loss (2). This primate also suffers losses because of natural predators such as ocelots, snakes, hawks and eagles. In addition, this species has suffered from trade, as its amazing appearance makes it a prize pet and very popular in zoos (7) (9). However, captive breeding in zoos and subsequent reintroductions have also helped save this species from extinction, so its former collection for zoos has also had a very positive impact (2). Since it has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN and hunting and trade of the species has been banned (1) (4), it is hoped that hunting no longer poses a threat, though sadly there are still occasional reports of illegal trade in this species (7). Deforestation and habitat loss, however, are more difficult problems to solve (6).

In the 1970s the numbers of these monkeys in zoos were declining as fast as those in the wild (5) (7). At this time, researchers from the National Zoological Park in Washington DC developed techniques for successfully breeding this species in captivity, and created a conservation plan to implement genetic and demographic management of the captive population involving long term studies of the species, educating local communities about conservation efforts, and increasing the extent of protected habitats (5).

Lion tamarins are now flagship species used in education programmes as ambassadors for their endangered rainforest habitat. To save the species, the Atlantic coastal forest has to be saved, which encourages people to protect the whole ecosystem (3). In 1995 the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, combined with local Brazilian organizations, signed a formal contract to reinforce current conservation measures, and develop new ones. Vital projects included the purchase of new land, habitat regeneration, especially the planting of ‘green corridors’ between fragmented forest areas, community education and the training of local staff (3). Many other conservation organizations – such as Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society - are also doing equally important work in Brazil (2). The survival of this species depends on this vigilant monitoring and management of wild populations, captive breeding and habitat restoration, otherwise it could still become extinct in the next decade (5). This is a great example of how conservation can work to save a species, but it also highlights how close we came to losing this extraordinary primate (6).

For more information on this species see:

The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust:

Authenticated (16/01/2006) by Matt Richardson, independent primatologist and writer.

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2003)
  2. Richardson, M. (2006) Pers. comm.
  3. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (October, 2003)
  4. CITES (October, 2003)
  5. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Dunbar, R. and Barrett, L. (2000) Cousins, our primate relatives. BBC Worldwide Ltd, London.
  7. Animal Info (October, 2003)
  8. Nowak, Ronald M. (1997) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, New York.
  9. Napier, P.H. and Napier, J.R. (1985) The Natural History of Primates. Cambridge University Press, London.