Golden-headed lion tamarin


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Suborder: Haplorrhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Cebidae
Subfamily: Callitrichinae
Genus: Leontopithecus
Species: L. chrysomelas

Other names: mico-leão de cara dourada (Portuguese); tamarino león de cabeza dorada (Spanish); guldhuvad lejonapa, guldhuvad lejontamarin, or gyllenhuvad lejonapa (Swedish)

Conservation status: Endangered

Life span: Unknown
Total population: 6000 to 15,000 (wild), 600 (captive)
Regions: Brazil
Gestation: 4.2 months (125 days)
Height: 250 mm (M), 236.3 mm (F)
Weight: 620 g (M), 534.8 g (F)


Golden-headed lion tamarins are one of four species of lion tamarins in the Genus Leontopithecus that have similar body shapes and share several common features including a lionlike mane of hair surrounding their dark brown, or black, hairless faces (Rowe 1996). The golden-headed lion tamarin has black fur over its entire body except for on its head and mane, where the fur is a light to deep golden color. It also has golden fur on part of its tail, hands, feet, and forearms (Rowe 1996; Groves 2001). Males and females are about the same size and weight, though a female’s weight fluctuates more than a male’s during certain times in the reproductive cycle. In captivity, males weigh between 540 and 700 g (1.19 and 1.54 lb) and average 620 g 1.37 lb) and measure, on average, 250 mm (9.84 in) while females weigh between 480 and 590 g (1.06 and 1.30 lb) and average 534.8 g (1.18 lb) and measure, on average 236.3 mm (9.30 in) (Rosenberger & Coimbra-Filho 1984). Based on a few specimens, wild male golden-headed lion tamarins weigh 550 g (1.21 lb), and the average weight of wild females is 591 g (1.30 lb) (Leigh 1994; Raboy 2002).

Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Other characteristics shared by lion tamarins include the presence of claw-like nails (called tegulae) instead of flat nails (called ungulae) as seen in humans and other primates, and the tendency to give birth to twins more frequently than singletons (Sussman 2000). The claw-like nails seen in golden-headed lion tamarins aid in their locomotion patterns of quadrupedal running, clinging, and leaping between trees. Having nails at the ends of their fingertips instead of on top of their fingertips allows them to efficiently grip vertical surfaces and may help stabilize them on small branches (Sussman 2000). The pattern of twinning that is common among golden-headed lion tamarins is an unusual characteristic for primates because of the high time and caloric investment necessary to carry and care for two infants at once. Lion tamarins and other callitrichines that exhibit this pattern have evolved social organizations and behaviors that include cooperative breeding to decrease the energetic strain on the mother and increase infant survival (Sussman 2000).


Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Golden-headed lion tamarins are endemic to Brazil and are found in small and disjunctive areas of forest in the coastal states of Bahia and Minas Gerais (Rylands et al. 2002a). They are the northernmost species of lion tamarins and are found in the very southeastern area of Bahia and the extreme northeast of Minas Gerais within 150 km (93.2 mi) of the Atlantic coast and at altitudes below 500 m (1640 ft). The range is bound by the Rio de Contas in the north, the Rio Jequitinhonha in the south, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and a change in altitude and vegetation in the west (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). The total area extends over about 19,000 km² (7336 mi²), but the forests in which they are found are highly fragmented because of land use activities including cattle ranching and cocoa cultivation. They are found in over 100 sites throughout their range, but are protected only in Bahia at Una Biological Reserve, a 94 km² (36.3 mi²) area that has a golden-headed lion tamarin population of 450 individuals as of 2000 (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Rylands et al. 2002a; Cruz pers. comm.). There are more golden-headed lion tamarins than all of the other three species combined (L. rosalia, L. chrysopygus, and L. caissara), with the total wild population estimated to be between 6,000 and 15,000 individuals (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). There are about 600 golden-headed lion tamarins in captivity around the world (Rylands et al. 2002a).

Key research on golden-headed lion tamarins began with Adelmar Coimbra-Filho in the early 1970s and revolved around taxonomic history, geographic distribution and habitat type. He was the first to set up a captive breeding colony of the species and was instrumental in getting the land set aside for Una, where long-term research on golden-headed tamarins is still being conducted (Rylands et al. 2002b). Russell Mittermeier, James Dietz, Anthony Rylands, and Becky Raboy have also contributed greatly to the current base of knowledge about wild golden-headed lion tamarins while Kristel De Vleeschouwer and Linda Van Elsacker have been driving forces behind captive research (Rylands et al. 2002b).


Many habitats and vegetative types make up the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and golden-headed lion tamarins are found in three of these distinct regions. The coastal region in which golden-headed lion tamarins are found is classified as southern Bahian lowland evergreen tropical rain forest and supports primary forests with trees as tall as 50 m (164 ft) with a sparse understory and an abundance of epiphytes (de S. Pinto & Tavares 1994; Rylands et al. 1991-1992). Many of the primary forests are disturbed and have dense and bushy understories. There are also swampy regions in the stream valley bottoms which support large numbers of epiphytes, palms, and tree ferns, and areas of abandoned rubber plantations which are in the process of succession. The other typical forest type seen in this area is from cocoa cultivation, a crop that needs shade to grow. In a system called cabruca, cacao plants (Theobroma cacao) are grown in the shade under tall, canopy trees leaving some habitat for the golden-headed lion tamarins (Rylands 1989; de S. Pinto & Tavares 1994; Rylands et al. 2002a). In the evergreen tropical rain forest where golden-headed lion tamarins are found, there is no distinct dry season, and rainfall and temperature remain fairly constant throughout the year. The average temperature is 24°C (75°F) and annual rainfall is between 1300 and 2000 mm (4.27 and 6.56 ft), with the heaviest rainfall occurring from March to June and November to December (Rylands 1993). The other coastal habitat in which they are found is the restinga, coastal forest on sand very close to the ocean (Rylands et al. 1991-1992). Both of these habitat types are within 70 km (43.5 mi) of the coast (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997).

Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

The inland region of their range is between 70 and 150 km (43.5 and 93.2 mi) from the Atlantic coast and is a transitional area between the coastal forests and higher altitude forests where the vegetation is considered semideciduous tropical forest (Rylands et al. 1991-1992; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; da Silva & Casteleti 2003). There are fewer large trees in this region and the trees are at a higher density than the evergreen forest with large areas of undergrowth dominated by epiphytes (Rylands et al. 1991-1992). In this area, there is a distinct dry season lasting three to four months and annual rainfall is only about 1000 mm (3.28 ft) (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997).


Information about wild golden-headed lion tamarin ecology primarily comes from research that has been conducted at Una Biological Reserve by Raboy and Dietz since 1991. Comparative research on the ecology of golden-headed lion tamarins and golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) is unfolding and preliminary results suggest that the two are not as similar as expected given their taxonomic relationship. Care should be taken to avoid assuming the two exhibit identical ecological behaviors such as foraging, diet, and ranging patterns (Dietz 1997; Raboy & Dietz 2004).

Lion tamarins are active for about nine to 12 hours per day, starting their day between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and ending it between 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. They utilize tree cavities as sleeping sites and the entire group sleeps and leaves the nest site together in the morning (Kierulff et al. 2002). There is limited availability of sleeping sites in golden-headed lion tamarins’ home range at Una Biological Reserve (Raboy et al. 2004). This may be an ecological constraint as it affects how much they need to travel in the morning to get to food resources and how far they need to move in the evening to get to a sleeping site (Rylands 1993; Raboy & Dietz 2004). During the day, they spend time feeding, traveling, and resting. Resting is most common during the middle of the day and is usually accompanied by social activities such as grooming, playing, or remaining in physical contact with one another. Traveling is most common during the first and last hours of the day after leaving the nest site and when looking for a sleeping site (Raboy & Dietz 2004). At Una, golden-headed lion tamarins travel, on average, about 1750 m (1.09 mi) per day within their home ranges, which are about 1.23 km² (.475 mi²). Most of their time is concentrated in certain parts of their home ranges, probably related to resource distribution or habitat quality centered in a particular area (Raboy & Dietz 2004). At another site near Una, Lemos Maia Experimental Station of the Cocoa Research Center, golden-headed lion tamarins have smaller home range sizes, about .4 km2 (.154 mi2) and have day range lengths between 1410 and 2175 m (.876 and 1.35 mi) (Rylands 1989). Golden-headed lion tamarins prefer foraging at heights above 12 m (39.4 ft) and are generally found acquiring food between 13 and 19 m (42.7 and 62.3 ft). This is probably related to the presence of large bromeliads, important microhabitats at this level of the forest that provide food resources (Rylands 1989).

Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Feeding occurs throughout the day, depending on what type of food items are being acquired. Golden-headed lion tamarins are primarily frugivorous and over 70% of their diet is made up of ripe fruits. Searching for and eating fruit is primarily a morning activity, though they eat fruit throughout the day if they find it. They also eat animal prey, such as insects and small vertebrates, exudates, nectars, and occasionally they are seen eating flowers (Kierulff et al. 2002; Raboy & Dietz 2004). In order to obtain animal prey such as insects, insect larvae, spiders, snails, frogs, lizards, bird eggs, and small snakes, they exploit microhabitats in bromeliads and other epiphytes as well as tree cavities, palm tree crowns, bamboo, vines, tree bark, fallen and rotting wood, and leaf litter piles (Kierulff et al. 2002; Raboy & Dietz 2004). Their long, dexterous fingers allow them to search in a variety of small spaces for insects and manipulate prey effectively (Rylands 1996). Insect foraging is seen primarily in the late morning and afternoon hours. They also feed on exudates, though they are not as specialized in this food resource as other callitrichines and only eat that sap which is excreted from seed pods of a single plant, Parkia pendula (Rylands 1989; Raboy & Dietz 2004). Because of the lack of seasonality at Una, these lion tamarins do not experience periods of food shortages like other species of Leontopithecus. Whereas other callitrichines depend on gum and sap as a food source in the dry season, when fruits are not available and insects are difficult to acquire, golden-headed lion tamarins have relatively stable food supplies throughout the year and use gums less frequently (Raboy & Dietz 2004).

Golden-headed lion tamarins are sympatric with three other species of primates, the black tufted-ear marmoset (Callithrix kuhli), the yellow breasted capuchin (Cebus xanthosternos), and the northern masked titi (Callicebus personatus melanochir). The tamarins do not compete for resources with these other species because of differences in foraging techniques at different heights of the forest and the exploitation of different animal prey (Rylands 1989; 1993). They form mixed-species groups with the black tufted-ear marmosets and often travel together with them for the entire day. During these associations, individuals of both species use the same pathways in the canopy, forage side-by-side in fruit trees, and coordinate periods of travel and rest (Raboy 1998). Golden-headed lion tamarins and black tufted-ear marmosets both utilize fruit as a major food resource and both are small and vulnerable to a number of predators. This interesting pattern of association is probably beneficial to both species in foraging benefits and increased detection of, and safety from, predators (Raboy 1998). Because of their excellent skills as insect foragers, golden-headed lion tamarins often facilitate the capture of insects by other species as well. Birds like the white-fronted nunbird and the woodcreeper follow behind the tamarins as they forage in microhabitats and capture insects that are flushed out of bromeliads (Raboy 1998; Hankerson et al. in press).

Content last modified: July 20, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Becky Raboy.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <>. Accessed 2020 July 23.



Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Wild golden-headed lion tamarins live in groups of about five individuals, excluding infants, and have been documented in the wild in groups as large as nine (Dietz et al. 1996). One or two adults of both sexes are usually present in the group, but there are usually more adult males than females. If there are two adult females within the group, only one is reproductively active. Also within the group are the offspring of various ages from two to three litters of the reproductive female (Dietz et al. 1994; Raboy 2002; Raboy & Dietz 2004). No genetic tests have been done to analyze paternity in groups of wild tamarins and it is unknown if the female breeds with more than one adult male. The younger group members remain in the group as they mature, sacrificing their own reproductive opportunities, and helping to raise their younger siblings in a system known as cooperative breeding. There is very little published information about dispersal rates of young males and females in the wild, but the documented pattern is that as non-reproductive adults, males and females disperse from their natal groups to avoid breeding with one of their parents and look for another group to join and in which to reproduce (Dietz et al. 1996; Raboy 2002). Golden-headed lion tamarins leave their natal groups between nine and 47 months of age and the average age of dispersal is 26.8 months, but may be closer to 38.7 months (Raboy 2002). Both males and females leave their natal groups in order to gain access to breeding opportunities, but if breeding vacancies appear within the group in which they were born and the opposite-sex parent disappears or transfers, males or females may inherit a position within their natal group (Raboy 2002). In other cases, young golden-headed lion tamarins may time transfers for when breeding vacancies are available in neighboring groups. One way the monkeys assess this is during intergroup encounters (Raboy 2002). Fluctuating between periods of stability and periods of rapid change, golden-headed lion tamarin groups remain stable for two to almost five years with no dispersal or immigration (Raboy & Dietz 1996). During periods of stability, the only increase in group size is due to new births. Turnover periods, occurring every few years, are marked by high rates of disappearance and immigration in which young golden-headed lion tamarins leave their natal groups to join another group or form their own group with a member of the opposite sex. Adult golden-headed lion tamarins may transfer between groups more than once, and changes in group composition may also be due to secondary transfer of adults (Raboy 2002). Smaller and newly formed groups are much more likely to accept immigrants; females enter groups without a resident breeding female while males enter a group with a breeding vacancy, aggressively displace breeding males, or enter a group and assume a non-breeding position (Raboy & Dietz 1996).

Some information about social behaviors must be extrapolated from studies of captive golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) simply because there is not enough data from wild or captive studies on golden-headed lion tamarins. Though the two species are closely related and likely share a repertoire of similar behaviors, using data from golden lion tamarins should be done prudently as new research on golden-headed lion tamarins will likely reveal similarities and differences between the species. Among golden lion tamarins, grooming is a major form of social activity and occurs between all family members either as they huddle in close contact during the day or evening or between pairs of individuals throughout the day (Kleiman et al. 1988). Adult females groom males more frequently than the reverse, and this may indicate that adult males are dominant over adult females within the group. Juveniles and subadults have high frequencies of grooming neonatal infants as they are interested in the youngest group members and attempt to make contact with them as often as possible. They will also groom the infants’ mother in an attempt to get closer to the newborn (Kleiman et al. 1988).

Because of their relatively large home range sizes, golden-headed lion tamarins encounter other groups less frequently than golden lion tamarins, but when they do, they exhibit territorial behavior. Intergroup behavior is aggressive and includes bouts of vocalizing, chasing, and fighting between individuals (Dietz et al. 1996; Raboy & Dietz 2004).


The social structure of golden-lion tamarins indicates they employ a monogamous mating system, but the presence of non-reproductive adult males and females indicates that the mating system is flexible and may also change over time depending on a number of factors that have not yet been tested (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2000). Furthermore, while it is thought that only one adult female per group breeds and she suppresses reproductive behavior in other females in the group through aggression and other mechanisms, no genetic tests have been done on wild golden-headed lion tamarins to confirm genetic relatedness of the young and other group members (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2001). Very few reports of polygynous groups of golden-headed lion tamarins have been published, but there are more instances documented in captive than in wild animals. When a second female does breed, she is often not successful in raising her infants. Captive studies have revealed that she either gives birth to stillborn infants or if they are live, the infants are often targeted by severe aggression from the dominant breeding female and they may be killed (Diego & Ferrari 1996; De Vleeschouwer et al. 2001). Some theories about what may lead to the tolerance of a second breeding female in some groups and not others include the presence of an unrelated male, a large number of helpers, or a relative richness in important food resources (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2001). It is in the dominant breeding female’s interest to limit the number of infants in the group at one time through reproductive suppression because caregivers are vitally important to the survival of infants, and she may not want her mate to spend time caring for another female’s infants, or, because pregnancy and lactation are such energetically taxing feats, resources are not abundant enough to support more than one lactating female (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2001).

In the wild, females can reproduce for the first time before two years of age, but given the small sample size of females of known age, it is difficult to conclude if this is normal as other females first gave birth after 2.5 years (Raboy 2002). Young females reach puberty at age 16 months and non-reproductive, sexually mature females exhibit normal ovarian cycles, which last about 21 days, even though they do not reproduce within their groups (French et al. 2002). One component of this reproductive suppression is the behavior of the reproductive female in the group that can include aggressive interactions such as biting, hitting, or pushing or can be more indirect and involve sending chemical cues by scent marking surfaces (Chaoui & Hasler-Gallusser 1999). Young males are also somewhat reproductively suppressed, though they are much less frequently studied than females. In captivity, if they remain in their natal group, male golden-headed lion tamarins do not reach sexual maturity until 28 months, but if they are removed from a group containing their mother and sisters, they will reach sexual maturity at 17 months (Chaoui & Hasler-Gallusser 1999). One explanation for this pattern of development could be that it is an adaptation against inbreeding; to avoid mating with his close relatives, a young male that does not immigrate into a new group is reproductively inhibited but if he leaves his natal group, he becomes sexually mature and may assume a breeding position in his new group.

Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

There are no external signs of ovulation, therefore reproductive females attract attention from breeding males by presenting their rumps toward the male and slightly lifting the tail. The male responds to this behavior by inspecting and sniffing the female’s genitals, evaluating her attractiveness and reproductive status (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2000). The highest occurrence of sexual behavior is during the peak of female receptivity, and once a female conceives, gestation lasts about four months (129 days) (French et al. 2002). Golden-headed lion tamarins exhibit birth seasonality even though they live in an area in which resources are equally abundant year-round. Most births occur from October through April and there is a significant absence of births from May to September (Bach et al. 2001). Most primates that exhibit birth seasonality do so because reproductive events are energetically expensive, and to maximize likelihood of infant survival, breeding, birth, and lactation occur during times of high resource abundance (Sussman 2000). Golden-headed lion tamarins seem to exhibit birth seasonality in accordance with photoperiod. This may be an adaptation because there may be behavioral advantages of raising offspring during longer days (Bach et al. 2001). In captivity, golden-headed lion tamarins can have one or two litters per year but in the wild they usually only have one per year (De Vleeschouwer et al. 2001). Rates of twinning are similar in captivity and in the wild, with more than half of the births resulting in twins rather than singletons (Bach et al. 2001).


Cooperative infant care, in which almost all group members in addition to the mother care for infants by transporting them, playing with them, and even provisioning them with solid food, is a hallmark of callitrichine social systems (Tardif et al. 2002). Golden-headed lion tamarin infants are born weighing close to 10% of the mother’s total body weight and if there are two, the twins can be an enormous burden for the mother to bear as they both need to be carried, nursed, and protected from predators (Van Elsacker et al. 1992). Other group members, including the presumable father of the infants as well as the older siblings spend time carrying and socializing with them, greatly contributing to their survival (Sussman 2000). One of the reasons they do this is because of their relationship with the infants: the father has an interest in ensuring the infants will live to reproduce and increase his own fitness, while the older siblings get experience caring for infants, which will help when they have offspring of their own, and they improve their fitness through kin selection (Sussman 2000). Though a new golden-headed lion tamarin mother has helpers on which to depend, she is the only one to carry her infants for the first two days, rebuffing all advances from group members to inspect and take the infants (de Oliveira et al. 1999). On the third day, the mother will allow the presumable father to carry the infant and by the fifth day, any other helpers can begin to transport the infant. Among lion tamarins, the amount the infant is carried decreases as it grows: by the age of four weeks, about 15% of the time is spent off of a carrier, though always nearby at least one group member for safety, and at seven weeks, they are still only spending about 20% of their time off the carrier. By 10 weeks, an infant is only being carried about half of the time (Tardif et al. 2002).

Another important behavior of cooperative infant care is food provisioning. For the first four weeks, the infants exclusively nurse, but food sharing begins during week five (Tardif et al. 2002). By week 12, young golden-headed lion tamarins are being provisioned at the highest rates, and sharing will decrease over time such that by about five months of age, they are no longer being provisioned by group members (Tardif et al. 2002). Though there is no data from wild golden-headed lion tamarins, wild golden lion tamarin juveniles (L. rosalia) are provisioned until 21 months of age, and the pattern may be similar across species (Tardif et al. 2002). Sharing food with infants may teach them an appropriate diet and provide them with important nutrients. In younger infants, foods that are high in lipids and protein that they are unable to acquire on their own, such as insects, are shared more frequently than other types of foods. Older juveniles receive a wider variety of foods, probably as a way to learn about appropriate foods (Tardif et al. 2002).


Both vocal and chemical communication are important to golden-headed lion tamarin groups. Because they live in tropical forests, visual communication is less important in long-distance interactions but is important in interactions between individuals that are in proximity (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). The only available information about vocal and visual communication in lion tamarins is for the golden lion tamarin (L. rosalia), but it is believed that similarities exist among all species of Leontopithecus (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). There are six discrete categories of vocalizations in golden lion tamarin communication: tonal, clucks, trills, atonal, multisyllable, and combination (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). Tonal vocalizations include the “whine” and “peep” calls and serve as alarm and affiliation calls. “Whines” are given in reaction to the presence of predators while “peeps” are sounded by solitary young after being reunited with the group or by any group member upon finding food (Kleiman et al. 1988; Boinski et al. 1994; Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). “Clucks” signal reaction to the presence of a novel item or are giving during foraging bouts. They also can signal aggression when golden lion tamarins encounter neighbors or intruders and are given while chasing or mobbing predators (Kleiman et al. 1988; Boinski et al. 1994). “Trills” have multiple purposes but mainly serve to indicate the location of the caller to other individuals over long distances. Atonal calls such as “rasps” or “screeches” are heard mostly during playing or as playing escalates to fighting (Kleiman et al. 1988; Boinski et al. 1994). Multisyllable calls include the most important vocalizations for group cohesion, the “short” and “long calls.” These are typically heard as golden lion tamarins leave their sleeping sites in the morning to locate their neighbors and are heard throughout the day as individuals keep in vocal contact with other group members (Peres 1991; Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). Combination calls also serve multiple purposes and include “trill-rasps,” “trill-whines,” and “cluck-whines.” These are used by juveniles begging for attention, protection, or food or by group members as they defend their territory against intruders or predators (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002).

Both male and female golden-headed lion tamarins have well-developed scent glands on their chest and around their genitals which secrete chemicals used to communicate information about the individual including sex and reproductive status as well as territory demarcation. Unfortunately, no work has been done to analyze the chemical composition of these secretions and therefore little information is understood about the mechanism by which these work to signal other golden-headed lion tamarins (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002).

Information about visual communication in golden-headed lion tamarins in also limited and therefore what is known about visual signals in golden lion tamarins must be applied to the former species (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). The repertoire of visual signals is limited compared to the other communication forms, but includes both postural and facial expressions that act as signals to nearby individuals (Kleiman et al. 1988; Kinzey 1997). Golden lion tamarins exhibit tongue-flicking, arch-walking, tail thrashing, rump displays and piloerection in sexual and social contexts (Kinzey 1997; Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002). Most visual signals are used during territorial encounters, social interactions, and reproductive events (Ruiz-Miranda & Kleiman 2002).

Content last modified: July 20, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Becky Raboy.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) Behavior . <>. Accessed 2020 July 23.


CITES: Appendix I (What is CITES?)
IUCN Red List: L. chrysomelas: EN (What is Red List?)
Key: EN = Endangered
(Click on species name to see IUCN Red List entry, including detailed status assessment information.)

Golden-headed lion tarmarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Some of the problems contributing to their status in the wild include massive deforestation for commercial agriculture crops, habitat fragmentation, and encroaching human populations. Export for the international pet trade may also be a factor contributing to declining golden-headed lion tamarin populations.


Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

The extensive forests that used to blanket the state of Bahia, Brazil have been decreased to about 2% of their former range, being cleared for human activities including farming, ranching, mining, and urban sprawl (Mallinson 2001). In the western part of the state, cattle ranching dominates the economy and has resulted in widespread elimination of golden-headed lion tamarin habitat (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Rylands et al. 2002b). In the eastern part of the state, where the majority of the remaining population survives, habitat destruction for agricultural crops is rampant. Traditionally, cocoa plantations dominated this region and many cocoa farmers continued to maintain more old growth forest than cocoa trees on their farms because of a method of growing cacao trees called cabruca. This is a system of shade cropping in which the middle and understory trees of intact forests are removed and replaced with cacao trees. While this reduces the number of lianas and eliminates much of the forest level where golden-headed lion tamarins live, there are still old growth trees that harbor sleeping sites and some foraging opportunities (Rylands et al. 2002b; Raboy et al. 2004). In the late 1970s, high prices of cocoa resulted in rapid expansion of cacao plantations. Unfortunately, high prices did not last and from 1986 to 1992, international cocoa prices bottomed out at the same time as witch’s broom disease began to spread through existing plantations. In 1989, the epidemic of witch’s broom disease, a fungus that attacks the cocoa and can only be combated by pruning the affected branches or burning the entire tree, forced farm owners to abandon their plantations, log the existing old growth on their land, and switch to alternative crops not grown in the same shade-cropping system (Rylands et al. 2002b). Old growth forest in cacao plantations that once was still useful to golden-headed lion tamarins was being destroyed either to harvest the trees for lumber, clear land for cattle ranching, or was replaced by other crops including coconut palms, African oil palms and peppers (Rylands et al. 2002b).

Potential Solutions

The rapid rate of habitat destruction within the range of the golden-headed lion tamarins indicates that their numbers will not remain high for long and suggests that forest fragmentation will continue to whittle away at the existing population much like the pattern seen in golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) (Oliver & Santos 1991; Rylands 1993-1994; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). Actions must be taken immediately to stop habitat destruction and begin to reconnect patches of forest that still harbor golden-headed lion tamarins (Oliver & Santos; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997).

The only significant protected area in which golden-headed lion tamarins are found is Una Biological Reserve, a 94 km² (36.3 mi²) park created specifically for their protection in 1980. Though the original governmental decree was for an area of 114 km² (44.0 mi²), this amount of land was not purchased immediately and for the last 25 years, the park has been growing incrementally as the government continues to acquire land (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Cruz pers. comm.). Forests surrounding Una are still relatively intact and it should be a priority to purchase them and integrate them into the biological reserve because, as it exists now, Una is not large enough to support a self-sustaining population of golden-headed lion tamarins (Rylands 1993-1994; de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997). If purchase and integration is not possible, it will be essential to work with land owners to persuade them to initiate tamarin-friendly land use patterns. Existing programs to educate private land owners in the areas around the reserve should continue while corridors should be grown connecting remaining old growth forests on private lands with Una forests. (de S. Pinto & Rylands 1997; Mallinson 2001). The Landowners’ Environmental Education Programme began in the early 1990s and focused on educating the community surrounding the reserve about the importance of protecting not only the reserve itself but contiguous forests. On over 70% of the farms in the area, conservation activities have been undertaken including sustainable agricultural practices that focus on preserving forests and golden-headed lion tamarin habitat (Mallinson 2001). School children, farm workers, hunters, and forest guards have been involved in the education program focusing on conservation, property rights, and land use as well as developing alternative sustainable economic undertakings (Mallinson 2001). As land is purchased for more forest reserves or protected areas in areas other than Una, programs like this should certainly be part of the transition from private to reserve land so that communities neighboring new reserves understand the importance of their actions on the golden-headed lion tamarin’s habitat and ultimate survival.

Research on the use of cabruca by golden-headed lion tamarins indicates that they will use this forest type more frequently than secondary forests as there are higher abundances of fruit, flowers, animal prey, and sleeping sites in cocoa plantations than in degraded, successional ecosystems (Raboy et al. 2004). Farmers that maintain cabruca with primary forest as the shade source rather than converting their land to a monoculture system provide better habitat for golden-headed lion tamarins. A reasonable compromise between farmers and conserving habitat might include economic incentives in order to maintain this system as opposed to logging the primary forest and converting the land to cattle ranching, in which no available habitat is left for the tamarins. Alternative economic opportunities in and around Una involve the establishment of an ecotourism facility. Trails, a canopy walkway, and a visitors’ education center have all been built for tourists to enjoy Una and the unique flora and fauna found there (Mallinson 2001). Responsible expansion of this program and stronger marketing both within Brazil and abroad might make it a more profitable venture for community members.

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

In the early 1980s, large numbers of golden-headed lion tamarins were illegally exported from Brazil to countries like Belgium, France, French Guiana, and Japan in order to supply the booming pet trade and exotic animal collectors (Mallinson 2001; Rylands et al. 2002a; b). The Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA concentrated efforts on recovery of illegally exported tamarins and, in 1986, was able to begin a captive breeding colony with seized animals (Mallinson 2001). The large numbers of recovered animals helped establish a genetically diverse founder population from which to begin captive breeding programs in Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the United States (Ballou et al. 2002). Seizures of golden-headed lion tamarins continue today, though not nearly at as high of a rate as was seen in the 1980s. The international demand for these animals as pets still exists, and though it is not nearly as high, coupled with the other threats to the population, it may affect the future potential of the population to survive.

Generally hunters in this region are either leisure hunters or subsistence hunters and though golden-headed lion tamarins are seldom hunted for food, there are a few reports that hunters kill and eat them (Oliver & Santos 1991; dos Santos & Blanes 1997).

Potential solutions

Administrators of Una Biological Reserve continue to confiscate illegally kept golden-headed lion tamarins and, in 1999, the captive population was over 600 individuals (Ballou et al. 2002). One effort to decrease the number of animals taken as pets or killed for food is education. When poachers or hunters are encountered, they receive information about the importance of conservation and the Brazilian laws that forbid the activity (Padua et al. 2002). This simple message has been successful in decreasing hunting rates by 50% according to IBAMA (dos Santos & Blanes 1997; Padua et al. 2002). Not only are hunters directly confronted if caught, education programs for all land owners and community members have been aimed at educating people about the endemism present in nearby the forests (dos Santos & Blanes 1997). Armed with information about conservation of their unique surroundings, community members begin to see golden-headed lion tamarins not as food or a potential source of income, but as an important part of the ecosystem and part of the local heritage.

Threat: Accidental Mortality

There is scant data available on accidental mortality but there have been some unpublished reports of golden-headed lion tamarins getting caught in snare traps set for other animals and accidentally being killed (Oliver & Santos 1991).

Threat: Natural Disasters

In the eastern half of their range, golden-headed lion tamarin habitat is characterized by wet conditions throughout the year, but in 1995, a severe drought occurred and resulted in a serious wildfire that threatened Una Biological Reserve (Anonymous 1995). The fire was started when neighboring farmers lost control of a fire they started to help clear their fields, a common technique used in South America to clear land of growth and add nutrients to the soil before planting crops.

Potential solutions

The Landowners’ Environmental Education Programme needs to incorporate information about burning fields and the potential harm that can be done to neighboring forests, especially under certain environmental conditions. While the newly established buffer zone between the reserve and other lands might decrease the chance of a fire spreading too quickly to the center of the reserve, in some situations, Una, and the golden-headed lion tamarins that live there, might be subject to serious natural disasters.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

The limited data available on fecundity and mortality in golden-headed lion tamarins suggests that the population grows more slowly and is subject to higher levels of predation compared to golden lion tamarins (L. rosalia) (Dietz 1997). Wild golden-headed lion tamarins have never been seen producing more than one litter per year, so population growth is relatively slow. Furthermore, disappearance rates are high within the population at Una Biological Reserve and may be attributed to density of predators. Mammalian and avian predators are a threat to these small animals, and when forest conditions are right, the predator population can thrive and have a negative effect on golden-headed lion tamarins (Dietz 1997). Unidentified disease is another contributor to mortality at Una. Certain illnesses can sweep through a group and kill all of the members within a few days (Dietz 1997).

The nature of habitat fragmentation throughout the golden-headed lion tamarin’s range will probably lead to problems associated with inbreeding including inbreeding depression, genetic drift, lack of genetic diversity, and lower recruitment rates. The total population at Una is estimated to be between 240 and 460 individuals. Though there is a wide discrepancy between estimates, the population is still thought to be less than the 500 breeding individuals necessary to maintain genetic diversity over the long term (Dietz et al. 1996). Additionally, the population at Una represents the largest population in the most intact forest in the entire range of the golden-headed lion tamarin, so it is clear that other subpopulations are subject to loss of genetic diversity over time.

Potential solutions

Having a healthy predator population within Una is essential for the functioning of the ecosystem, but other efforts to decrease golden-headed lion tamarin mortality have been undertaken. Current studies require that habituated animals be captured every six months to replace radio transmitter batteries. At this semiannual event, veterinary care is provided for the animals as a routine way to check their health and evaluate any concerns (Dietz et al. 1996). By monitoring the health of the animals over time, changes can be noted and care can be provided in certain circumstances. Monitoring and attempting to provide care for sick tamarins is an expensive and relatively futile process compared to eliminating sources of inbreeding depression that might cause certain individuals to be at higher risk for health problems. It is essential that Una does not become an island of forest, cutting off dispersing golden-headed lion tamarins from entering new territories, starting new groups, or immigrating into the breeding position of existing groups. Efforts to connect patches of forest throughout the range will increase the likelihood of gene flow in the population and will help to decrease the chances of the loss of genetic diversity (Dietz et al. 1996). Currently, studies to evaluate and prioritze areas for forest linkage are underway and will hopefully lead to management strategies and eventual reconnection of forest fragments (Raboy pers. comm.).

Threat: Human Disturbance

Following the drop in cocoa prices and the spread of witch’s broom disease, unemployment rates soared in the region surrounding Una Biological Reserve. Displaced workers swarmed to the forests, both protected and unprotected, clearing the land for subsistence agriculture because of their lack of economic prospects (Padua et al. 2002). Additionally, cocoa plantation owners began to cut the primary forests of the cabruca and sell the lumber to supplement income. This resulted in an increased rate of forest fragmentation both within Una and in the surrounding areas and directly impacting the golden-headed lion tamarin (Padua et al. 2002).

Potential solutions

Economic opportunity that does not involve resource extraction and deforestation of Una needs to be created or sustainable use of resources needs to be highlighted in education programs for community members. One solution that has been implemented is the establishment of a buffer zone surrounding the reserve. This 10 km (6.21 mi)-wide strip of vegetation borders the perimeter of the reserve and serves to protect the inner park from invasion of squatters, hunters and poachers through environmental education, agricultural outreach, and studies of land use in the region (Mallinson 2001; Raboy pers. comm.).




Content last modified: July 20, 2005

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Becky Raboy.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2020 July 23.


The following references were used in the writing of this factsheet. To find current references for Leontopithecus chrysomelas, search PrimateLit.


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Content last modified: July 20, 2005


Leontopithecus chrysomelas
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