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Haemig PD 2012 Ecology of Lion Tamarins. ECOLOGY.INFO 34

Ecology of Lion Tamarins

Note: This online review is updated and revised continuously, as soon as results of new scientific research become available.  It therefore presents state-of-the-art information on the topic it covers.

The four species of Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus) are found only in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil. There, each species inhabits a tiny range separate from the other Lion Tamarins.  In this article, we review the many ways that these endangered primates interact with other animals and plants.


The four species of Lion Tamarins are distributed from North to South as follows:

Golden-headed Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas)
- Bahia State

Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)
- Rio de Janeiro State

Black Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus)
- São Paulo State

Black-faced Lion Tamarin, (Leontopithecus caissara)
- Paraná State and adjacent sliver of SE São Paulo State

Each species is found in only a small part of the state listed as its range.  This is because their habitat, the Atlantic Forest, has largely been destroyed. 

Those few Lion Tamarins that survive today live in remaining fragments of the Atlantic Forest and, sometimes, in adjacent plantations that have tree species and bromeliads that Lion Tamarins can use (Faria et al. 2007; Oliveira et al. 2010, 2011).

General Habits

Lion tamarins are active during the day and sleep at night.  They live in groups of 2 to 11 individuals, the average group size being 4 to 7 individuals (Baker et al. 2002).  Each group usually defends a territory (Peres 1989b).

Lion Tamarins live in the forest and spend most of their time in trees. Like marmosets, they have claw-like nails on their fingers that enable then to cling to tree trunks and branches.  Lion Tamarins walk, run and leap like squirrels, using all four limbs. 

Lion Tamarins eat primarily fruits, insects, small vertebrates and bird eggs (Lapenta et al. 2003). To a lesser extent, they also feed on nectar, flowers and palatable gums and exudates of trees and lianas (Peres 1989a; Miller & Dietz 2005).

Lion Tamarins are specialized for hunting embedded prey. They have elongated hands and fingers that they stick into bark crevices, bromeliads and dense foliage to find and extract hidden prey (Miller & Dietz 2005).

Lion Tamarins give birth to young (usually twins) from September to March, "slightly before or during the peak of fruit and insect availability" (Di Bitetti & Janson 2000).


Lion Tamarins eat a wide variety of wild fruits.  For example, one study at Una Biological Reserve found that Golden-headed Lion Tamarins ate the fruits of 79 tree species from 32 different plant families (Raboy & Dietz 2004).  Another study at Una found similar results with the fruits of 93 tree species eaten (Oliveira et al. 2010). 

Although many different kinds of fruits are consumed, some are eaten more than others.  For example, in one study where Golden-headed Lion Tamarins ate fruits of 71 different species, seven species made up over half the diet (57.1%) and 32 species (45%) were consumed only once (Cardoso et al. 2011).

Similarly, Black Lion Tamarins at Fazenda Rio Claro spent 37% of their feeding time during an entire year eating fruits of one tree species: the palm Syagus romanzoffiana (Mamede-Costa & Godoi 1998).  The reason this tree made up such a large part of the total feeding time was that it bore fruit year-round, with a peak in the dry season when other fruiting trees were scarce. The fruits of this palm tree thus seem to be a key resource for Black Lion Tamarins, and may be a important factor enabling them to survive in the "few and very small forest fragments where they exist today" (Mamede-Costa & Godoi 1998).

Although commercial fruits are rarely eaten, Golden Lion Tamarin groups are occasionally seen eating bananas in banana plantations adjacent to the forests where they live (Coimbra-Filho 1969).

Seed Dispersal

Lion Tamarins play an important ecological role by dispersing the seeds of most fruits they eat.  When a Lion Tamarin swallows seeds, the seeds often pass undamaged through their digestive system.  Later, when the Lion Tamarin defecates, the seeds are deposited at a locality that is far from the parent tree.

By moving seeds this way, Lion Tamarins help forest trees to spread their seeds through the rainforest.  With luck, some of these seeds will germinate and, if they survive, grow someday into big trees (Passos 1997; Lapenta & Procópio-de-Oliveira 2009).

Cardoso et al. (2011) found that 80.4% of Golden-headed Lion Tamarin defecations contained seeds. They observed Golden-headed Lion Tamarins swallowing the fruits of 53 species, and discovered seeds of 40 (75.4%) of these species in the defecations that they found.  Most defecations (54.9%) contained seeds of only one species, and the highest number for a single defecation was three species.

In another study, Golden Lion Tamarins fed on fruits of 97 species of trees, swallowing the seeds of 76 species and spitting out the seeds of 21 species (Lapenta & Procópio-de-Oliveira 2008).  The seeds of all 76 species swallowed by the Golden Lion Tamarins were found in their feces. Again, most defecations (89.6%) contained only one species of seed and there were never more than three species in a single defecation.

How far from a fruiting tree are its seeds dispersed?  One study found that Golden-headed Lion Tamarins dispersed seeds 22 to 781 meters from the parent tree, with most (61%) were dispersed over 150 meters (Cardoso et al. 2011).  Another study found that Golden Lion Tamarins dispersed seeds 0 to 858 meters from the parent tree, with a mean average of 105 meters (Lapenta & Procópio-de-Oliveira 2008).

Does passage through the Lion Tamarin's digestive system affect the seeds in a way that changes their frequency of germination?

To answer these questions, Lapenta et al. (2008) compared germination of seeds taken from Golden Lion Tamarin defecations to seeds of the same species taken from fresh fruits.  Of 23 species tested, seven species showed increased germination frequency if their seeds had passed through the digestive system of Golden Lion Tamarins.  Three species showed the opposite result, while 11 species showed no differences.

Associations with Birds

Birds are sometimes seen following Lion Tamarins.  For example, a 3-year study in Bahia found that 11 different species of birds foraged within 5 meters of Golden-headed Lion Tamarins (Hankerson et al. 2006).  Various species of woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptidae) and the White-fronted Nunbird (Monasa morphoes) made up 92.7% of the observations.

Such associations of Golden-headed Lion Tamarins and birds usually consist of a single bird species foraging with a group of Lion Tamarins.  The next most frequent associations in order of decreasing frequency are those involving 2, 3, 4 bird species.  Four was the highest number of bird species seen associating at any one time with Golden-headed Lion Tamarins during the 3-year study. (Hankerson et al. 2006)

As Lion Tamarins move from one bromeliad to another searching for concealed food, they frequently flush up insects and other small animals that are then seized and eaten by the woodcreepers and nunbirds that follow closely behind the Lion Tamarins (Hankerson et al. 2006).  Consequently, the association is believed to be beneficial to the birds because it increases their access to prey that is often hidden from them.

The 3-year study also found that the association between Golden-headed Lion Tamarins and birds occurred year round, with no significant differences in frequency between seasons (Hankerson et al. 2006).

Selection of Sleeping Sites

Lion Tamarins usually sleep in tree holes at night.  Sometimes, however, they may sleep in bamboo thickets, dense tangles of lianas, natural shelters formed by bromeliads, boles of palm trees under living or dead palm leaves, abandoned bird or mammal nests, and tree branches or forks (Hankerson et al. 2007; Amaral Nascimento & Schmidlin 2011).

A 14-year study found Golden Lion Tamarins using sleeping sites at the following frequencies: tree holes = 63.6%, ground inside dense bamboo thickets = 17.5%, dense tangles of lianas = 9.6%, bromeliads = 4.7 % (Hankerson et al. 2007).  Arboreal sleeping sites averaged 6 or more meters above the ground (Hankerson et al. 2007).

Why Lion Tamarins are Endangered

All four Lion Tamarins are endangered with extinction.  The main cause of their plight is destruction of the Atlantic Forest by humans.  Lion Tamarins need this forest for their survival (Kierulff & Rylands 2003).

The illegal capture of Lion Tamarins for sale as pets is another important factor causing their numbers to decrease (Kierulff & Rylands 2003).


Amaral Nascimento AT, Schmidlin LAJ  (2011)  Habitat selection by, and carrying capacity for, the critically endangered Black-faced Lion Tamarin Leontopithecus caissara (Primates: Callitrichidae).  Oryx 45: 288-295

Baker AJ, Bales K, Dietz JM  (2002)  Mating system and group dynamics in Lion Tamarins.  Pp 188-212 in Kleiman DG, Rylands AB, editors.  Lion Tamarins: Biology and Conservation.  Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press

Cardoso NA, Le Pendu Y, Lapenta MJ, Raboy BE  (2011)  Frugivory patterns and seed dispersal by Golden-headed Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) in Una Biological Reserve, Bahia, Brazil.  Mammalia 75: 327-337.

Coimbra-Filho AF  (1969)  Mico-leão, (Leontideus rosalia [Linnaeus, 1766]), situação atual da espécie no Brasil (Callithricidae-Primates).  Ann. Acad. Brasil Ciêc. 41: 29-52

Di Bitetti MS, Janson CH  (2000)  When will the stork arrive?  Patterns of birth seasonality in Neotropical primates.  American Journal of Primatology 50: 109-130

Faria D, Barradas Paciencia ML, Dixo M, Laps RR, Baumgarten J  (2007)  Ferns, frogs, lizards, birds and bats in forest fragments and shade cacao plantations in two contrasting landscapes in the Atlantic Forest, Brazil.  Biodiversity and Conservation 16: 2335-2357

Hankerson SJ, Dietz JM, Raboy BE  (2006)  Associations between Golden-headed Lion Tamarins and the bird community in the Atlantic Forest of southern Bahia.  International Journal of Primatology 27: 487-495

Hankerson SJ, Franklin SP, Dietz JM (2007)  Tree and forest characteristics influence sleeping site choice by Golden Lion Tamarins.  American Journal of Primatology 69: 976-988

Kierulff MCM, Rylands AB  (2003)  Census and distribution of the Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia).  American Journal of Primatology 59: 29-44

Lapenta MJ. Procópio-de-Oliveira R, Kierluff MCM, Motta-Jr. JC (2003)  Fruit exploitation by Golden Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia) in the Uniao Biological Reserve, Rio das Ostras, RJ - Brazil.  Mammalia 67: 41-46

Lapenta MJ. Procópio-de-Oliveira R, Kierluff MCM, Motta-Jr. JC  (2008)  Frugivory and seed dispersal of Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia (Linnaeus, 1766)) in a forest fragment in the Atlantic Forest, Brazil.  Brazilian Journal of Biology 68: 241-249

Mamede-Costa AC, Godoi S  (1998)  Consumption of Syagrus romanzoffiana (Arecaceae) fruits by Black Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) in south-eastern Brazil.  Mammalia 62: 310-313.

Miller KE, Dietz JM  (2005)  Effects of individual and group characteristics on feeding behaviors in Leontopithecus rosaliaInternational Journal of Primatology 26: 1291-1319

Oliveira LC, Hankerson SJ, Dietz JM, Raboy BE  (2010)  Key tree species for the Golden-headed Lion Tamarin and implications for shade-cocoa management in southern Bahia, Brazil.  Animal Conservation 13: 60-70

Oliveira LC, Neves LG, Raboy BE, Dietz JM  (2011)  Abundance of Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) affects group characteristics and use of space by Golden-headed Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) in cabruca agroforest.  Environmental Management 48: 248-262

Passos FC  (1997)  Seed dispersal by Black Lion Tamarin, Leontopithecus chrysopygus (Primates, Callitrichidae), in southeastern Brazil.  Mammalia 61: 109-111.

Peres C  (1989a)  Exudate-eating by wild Golden Lion Tamarins, Leontopithecus rosaliaBiotropica 21: 287-288

Peres CA  (1989b)  Costs and benefits of territorial defense in wild Golden lion Tamarins, Leontopithecus rosaliaBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 25: 227-233

Raboy BE, Dietz JM  (2004)  Diet, foraging, and use of space in wild Golden-headed Lion Tamarins.  American Journal of Primatology 63: 1-15

Snyder PA  (1974)  Behavior of Leontopithecus rosalia (Golden-lion Marmoset) and related species: a review.  Journal of Human Evolution 3: 109-122

About this Review

The photo at the top of the page shows a Golden Lion Tamarin and was taken by Jeroen Kransen of the Netherlands.

The author of this review is:  Dr. Paul D. Haemig (Sweden)

This review is also available in the following languages:


The proper citation for this review is:

Haemig PD  2012   Ecology of Lion Tamarins.  ECOLOGY.INFO 34.

If you are aware of any important scientific publications about the interactions of Golden Lion Tamarins with other organisms or the environment that were omitted from this review, or if you have other suggestions for improving it, please contact the author at his e-mail address: 

haemig {at} ecology.info

© Copyright 2012-2012 Ecology Online Sweden.  All rights reserved.

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