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Looks like a lion; as big as a squirrel

By: Maria Ramos

Golden lion tamarin. Photo: Jeroen Kransen/Flickr

Golden lion tamarin. Photo: Jeroen Kransen/Flickr

Among all endangered species in Brazil, it is the one that calls the most attention. It is a symbol of the conservation movement in the country. It has a lion-like mane, but is as big as a squirrel. Do you know who that is?

Lion tamarins can be found only in Brazil, in the Atlantic Forest. They are primates, just like other monkeys. But they are much smaller than their cousins — adults measure up to 60 centimeters (23 inches) from head to the tip of their tails and weigh between 360 and 710 grams (13 and 25 ounces), while their babies weigh around 60 grams (two ounces).

Lion tamarins have either golden or black fur. They have small claws that they use to dig in search for roots and insects, but they also eat fruit, tree sap, eggs and small animals like birds and lizards. In nature, they live between eight and 15 years. In captivity, however, they can be as much as 30 years of age!

They are territorial animals and move around in groups of four to six individuals, which choose a part of the forest to live and defend the area against the invasion of other groups. At dawn, they go into the hollow parts of trees or into tangled vines or bromeliads. It's time for bed!

When they are approximately two years of age, lion tamarins are ready to breed. They choose a single partner and remain faithful to him/her, which is called "monogamy." There are no differences in color or size between males and females.

Golden-headed lion tamarin. Photo: Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia

Golden-headed lion tamarin. Photo: Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia

There are one or two breeding seasons per year: one between September and November and the other between January and March. The female is pregnant for a little more than four months. Each pregnancy generates between one and three babies. Newborns are taken care by both their mothers and fathers.

To protect themselves from predators, lion tamarins communicate to one another using specific vocalizations, which indicate the presence of jaguars, snakes, hawks and other birds of prey (hunting birds). However, the greatest threat to their survival has been us humans.

Endangered species

Since humans want to have everything that is beautiful and different, lion tamarins were captured throughout centuries and even today are still the targets of hunters and illegal animal dealers. In the past, they were very popular pets in Brazil and among the European royalty.

What nearly drove lion tamarins to extinction was deforestation, which practically annihilated the Atlantic Forest, the only habitat for these animals. Before being reduced to less than 8% of its original size, the Atlantic Forest was Brazil's second largest tropical rainforest. It was only second in size to the Amazon, and covered almost the entire Brazilian coast.

Black-faced lion tamarin. Photo: Tom Svensson

Black-faced lion tamarin. Photo: Tom Svensson

The lack of awareness regarding environmental preservation caused the four existing species of lion tamarins to be endangered. The black-faced lion tamarin — or Superagui lion tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara) — is currently the one at most risk. There are only 400 specimens, which is considered very little and could pose a threat to the survival of the species. They live at the Superagui island and at the Rio dos Patos valley, both in the Brazilian state of Paraná, as well at the Ariri plains, in the state of São Paulo.

The golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) almost disappeared in the 1970s. At the time, there were only a little more than 200 of them in nature. With the help of national and international organizations and government institutions, their population increased to the current number of 1,200.

They are also known as golden marmosets and live, today, at the Atlantic Forest of the coastal plains of the state of Rio de Janeiro, in the municipalities of Silva Jardim, Rio Bonito, Casimiro de Abreu, Rio das Ostras, Cabo Frio, Armação dos Búzios and Saquarema. Another 450 of them live in zoos throughout the world.

Black lion tamarin. Photo: Alan Hill/Wikimedia

Black lion tamarin. Photo: Alan Hill/Wikimedia

The black lion tamarin  (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) was considered extinct for more than 50 years. It was rediscovered in 1971 and preservation efforts increased the number of specimens to around 1,000, which are restricted to seven private forest fragments and two state conservation units in the west of the state of São Paulo.

Of all of them, the golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) is the least threatened. Estimates indicate that there are between six and 15 thousand specimens living in what was left of the Atlantic Forest in Southern Bahia.

See also:

Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program

Black-Faced lion Tamarin Conservation ProgramPrograma de Conservação do Mico Leão da Cara Preta

Black Lion Tamarin Conservation


Smithsonian - National Zoo 

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