Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 94 – The Golden Lion Tamarin


Family portrait

 “In simple terms, the rainforests, which encircle the world, are our very life-support system – and we are on the verge of switching it off.”
Charles, Prince of Wales

Golden lion tamarins take their name from the magnificent ‘mane’ of golden hair around their necks – bearing a remarkable resemblance to the lions of Africa.  There are four species of lion tamarins – all of which are endangered, and all of which are endemic to Brazil.

Golden lion tamarin foragingEach species is blighted with the same major threats to its survival; loss of homes due to illegal logging, haphazard cattle ranching and human settlement.  Shockingly, the lion tamarins have now been left with only eight per cent of their original habitat.  Put another way, a staggering ninety-two per cent of their native Atlantic Brazilian forest has been burned or felled. This has jeopardised their freedom to roam for food, shelter and genetically diverse mates, rendering them one of the most endangered species on the planet.

Colonisation is not new to the Atlantic forest. Europeans first settled here in the 1500s. Historically, destruction began with coffee and sugarcane plantations.  During the 18th and 19th centuries demand was high for both commodities, heights matched only by the devastation caused by these activities. Despite this, today’s damage far surpasses anything achieved previously.

Current deforestation has created a specific danger for young golden lions.  These highly sociable little animals are far more exposed in their ‘play areas’ than before, making them vulnerable to predators.  Over forty per cent of Golden lion tamarin feedingjuvenile tamarins do not live past one year, even in normal circumstances, and this can only add to the difficulties of re-populating the troops.  The average lifespan of any golden lion tamarin surviving the age of one, in the wild, is fifteen years.

There are several conservation programs designed to combat the decline of the species in the wild.  Animals have been reintroduced from various worldwide captive breeding programs, which incidentally move individuals among the various zoos to prevent inbreeding. Survival rates have been notable, but their habitat is now so sparse, the problem with finding suitable homes and feeding grounds has not abated.

Fortunately, tourism has also begun to play its part, using the golden lions as a an attraction to be seen rather than harmed.  This can only be  a step in the right direction.

Also known as golden marmosets, the golden lion tamarins are easily recognized New World monkeys that sport a vivid orangey-red coat, with a long mane surrounding a hairless face of dark, rich purple.  It has been said that the colour of the coat may have come from direct exposure to sunlight coupled with carotenids in the diet.

Golden lion tamarin climbing a tree Golden lion tamarins are callitrichids, which have the defining characteristic of claw-like fingernails on all digits except the hallux (big toe).  These adaptations aid climbing, clinging to tree trunks in vertical fashion, quadrupedal movement through the branches and feeding.  Both male and female are similar in size reaching a height of about ten inches and weighing an average of one and a half pounds.

Golden lions are arboreal, sleeping in tree hollows at night hoping for some protection from predators.  Unfortunately, nocturnal predators, such as snakes and wild cats, often get the better of them.  When one monkey sees a predator, an alarm call is emitted to warn the rest of the troop.  Sadly, this is often too late.

A golden lion tamarin dad , front and back, rare twin babies, Brandywine Zoo, Wilmington, Delaware.These tamarins, like the others,  are omnivorous and travel through the branches (at up to 24 miles per hour, no less) to forage during the day.  They live in troops of anything up to nine individuals and often these delightful primates share food with each other. Normally these troops would be made up of a male, a female and some younger members of the family.

Lion tamarins are monogamous and mating usually takes place at the end of the rains (March to June), after which there is a gestation period of four months.  The species is unusual in that twins are normally born.  Most primates will give birth to a single infant.  Three and four babies have also been known to be birthed, but the chances of survival of all are quite remote.  The weakest will usually go first.  All group members, especially the father, will help with the care of the babies.  Infants are totally dependent on their mothers for the first four weeks.  At five weeks they will become a tad more independent and start to explore their surrounding, but still keeping close to mother.  Seventeen weeks will see them socialising with others in the troop, and at the age of fourteen months they will be considered young adults.

Natural Habitat
Coastal primary tropical forests.
Where
The diminishing Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil.
What they eat
Soft fruits, insects, flowers, nectar, eggs, invertebrates and small vertebrates.
Threats
Habitat loss and fragmentation due to aggressive logging, reckless agriculture and extensive human settlement.  Loss of suitable habitat has made reintroduction to the wild difficult because of the lack of sufficient clustered trees.   Though more than four hundred animals have been reintroduced into Brazil since 1984.   Capture for the illegal pet trade seriously depleted populations in the past, however,  this practice has lessened since laws were passed making the keeping of exotic pets illegal. But, it has not ceased.  Natural predators include birds of prey, snakes and wild cats.
Status: Endangered
The golden lion tamarin  (Leontopithecus rosalia)  is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Endangered.  It is also included on the  Brazilian Official List of Species Threatened with Extinction  (Lista Oficial de Espécies Brasileiras Ameaçadas de Extinção)  and on the regional threatened species list of the state of Rio de Janeiro.  The golden lion tamarin is protected under CITES Appendix I.
Dedicated conservation efforts have brought the numbers of golden lion tamarins from less than two hundred in the wild in the early 1970s, to over fifteen hundred living in the forests today.
Approximately four hundred and fifty are known to be living in one hundred and fifty zoos around the world.
Various conservation measures and programmes are in place, including  the National Zoo 


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