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Golden-headed lion tamarin
Leontopithecus chrysomelas

Conservation status:

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)

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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)


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).

Leontopithecus chrysomelas
Photo: Bryan Lenz

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).

Leontopithecus chrysomelas
Photo: Sharon Savage

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).

Leontopithecus chrysomelas
Photo: Anne Zeller

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 6.