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Golden lion tamarin
Leontopithecus rosalia

Conservation status:

Life span: 14.2 years (captive)
Total population: approx. 1000 (wild), 500 (captive)
Regions: Brazil
Gestation: 4.2 months (125 days)
Height: 261 mm (M & F)
Weight: 620 g (M), 575 to 622 g (F)

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

Other names: golden lion marmoset; singe-lion or tamarin soyeux (French); mico-leão-dourado (Portuguese); sauí-piranga (Spanish); röd lejonapa, röd lejontamarin, större lejonapa, or vanlig lejonapa (Swedish)


Golden lion tamarins are easily recognized New World monkeys that have fiery orange or red fur over their entire bodies including long hairs that form a striking mane on their cheeks, throat, and ears surrounding their dark, hairless faces (Rowe 1996; Kinzey 1997). The rich color of their coat is thought to be a product of sunlight exposure and the presence of carotenids in their diet (Kleiman et al. 1988). Lion tamarins (Leontopithecus) are the largest of the callitrichids. Golden lion tamarin males and females are similarly sized with the average height of 261 mm (10.3 in) and average weight around 620 g (1.37 lb). Depending on their current reproductive stage, females' weight fluctuates, on average between 575 and 622 g (1.27 and 1.37 lb) (Dietz et al. 1994a; Rowe 1996; Sussman 2000).

L. rosalia
Photo: Richard Day

One of the defining characteristics of callitrichids is their specialized nails which aid in their feeding behaviors and locomotion. Golden lion tamarins and other members of the family Callitrichidae have claw-like nails (called tegulae) instead of flat-nails (called ungulae) which humans and other primates generally exhibit, allowing them to cling vertically to tree trunks and perhaps aiding in walking, running, leaping and bounding quadrupedally along smaller branches in the forests in which they live (Sussman 2000). Because of their patterns in movement and the presence of claws, callitrichids were once thought be primitive primates, more closely related to squirrels, but these traits are highly evolved, having reappeared in golden lion tamarins and others after radiating through South America (Garber et al. 1996).

Another special characteristic of this group of primates is their tendency to give birth to twins, an unusual characteristic among primates because of the immense amount of time and energy it takes to care for just one infant. About 78% of all births in wild golden lion tamarins are twins and the energetic demand of caring for two infants has shaped the social structure and cooperative breeding patterns prevalent in golden lion tamarins (Dietz et al. 1994a; Sussman 2000). Triplets and quadruplets have also been reported for golden lion tamarins, but when a female gives birth to more than two infants, there are usually one or two weaker individuals that will not survive (Kinzey 1997). About 1% of all wild births are triplets, but in captivity, about 28% of the births are triplets (Dietz et al. 1994a).

The average lifespan of captive golden lion tamarins is 14.2 years (Rowe 1996).


Leontopithecus rosalia

Endemic to Brazil, the range of the golden lion tamarin is extremely restricted, with animals living only in 14 highly fragmented forests remnants totaling 154 km² (59.5 mi²) in area in the state of Rio de Janeiro. They are found along the coast on the far southeastern border of the state in the municipalities of Silva Jardim, Cabo Frio, Saquarema, and Araruama (Kierulff & Rylands 2003). They have also been successfully reintroduced in the municipalities of Rio das Ostras, Rio Bonito, and Casimiro de Abreu (Kierulff et al. 2003). The only protected areas of their range are the 63 km² (24.3 mi²) Poço das Antas Biological Reserve, which holds about 230 animals, and the União Biological Reserve which is 32 km² (12.4 mi²) and has a population of about 120 individuals (Rylands et al. 2002a). Neither of these reserves has fully intact forests. In fact, only about 35 km² (13.5 mi²) of Poço das Antas is forested while only 24 km² (9.27 mi²) of União remains forested (Rylands et al. 2002a). Nevertheless, União is one of the largest tracts of well-preserved late-stage secondary and primary Atlantic Coastal rainforest in the state of Rio de Janeiro (Rapaport pers. comm.).

Burity et al. (2007) reported the occurrence of L. rosalia in the municipality of Duque de Caxias, near the Rio Taquara, in the Taquara Municipal Natural Park (19,000 ha), Rio de Janeiro, a westward extension of its current known range.

The total wild population is estimated to be 562 individuals but another 500 captively-bred animals have been reintroduced to forested areas in the historic range (Kierulff & Rylands 2003). There are about 500 individuals in captivity (Rylands et al. 2002a).

Long-term behavioral and ecological research has been conducted at Poço das Antas since its establishment in 1974. One of the main players in the establishment of a reserve for golden lion tamarins was Adelmar F. Coimbra-Filho, a pioneer in research on the species and an inspiration to researchers including Russell Mittermeier, Anthony Rylands, James Dietz, and Andrew Baker. Another notable golden lion tamarin expert is Devra Kleiman who was instrumental in captive propagation of the primate at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC in the mid-1970s and who continues to work on captive breeding and reintroduction (Rylands et al. 2002b).


The coastal state of Rio de Janeiro is home to the quickly disappearing Atlantic Forest habitat on which golden lion tamarins depend. They are found in severely fragmented and degraded coastal lowland forests below 300 m (984 ft) above sea level (Rylands et al. 1996; 2002a). Poço das Antas, the primary study area for wild golden lion tamarins, is divided into several habitat types. The hilltop forests occupy the highest elevations in the reserve, about 150 m (492 ft), and consist of tall, mature forest with species reaching 32 m (105 ft) in height and very little understory (Dietz et al. 1997). The hillside forests are disturbed and occur at elevations up to 120 m (394 ft). There are large gaps in tree growth allowing a dense understory to thrive. The emergent trees that do grow in hillside forests reach about 20 m (65.6 ft) in height (Dietz et al. 1997). Swamp forests are also common in Poço das Antas. These are characterized by standing water either throughout the year or during the rainy season and large trees that support heavy loads of lianas, bromeliads, and orchids. Ginger patches are another distinct habitat type. These exist in lowland areas and have a continuous herbaceous layer of growth including abundant stands of bromeliads. These distinct habitat types are connected by corridors of secondary growth and are interspersed with pasture (Dietz et al. 1997). At União Biological Reserve, golden lion tamarins utilize primary forest more frequently because of its availability. Compared to Poço das Antas, where primary forest is fairly limited to swamp lands and hillside forests are chiefly contain secondary growth, primary forest is available on hillsides and other areas besides swamps at União and the golden lion tamarins are not seen as frequently in swamps (Rapaport pers. comm.).

There is marked seasonality in the coastal lowland forests. The rainy season occurs from October to April and the dry season lasts from about June through August. May and September are considered transition months rather than grouped into the dry or wet season (Dietz et al. 1994a). During the rainy season, average rainfall is greater than 125 mm (4.92 in) per month with the heaviest rains falling in December and January. The dry season is characterized by average monthly rainfall below 75 mm (2.95 in). The least amount of rain falls in June and July (Dietz et al. 1997). Average annual precipitation is about 1756 mm (5.76 ft) (Dietz et al. 1994a; Peres 2000). Temperatures are much warmer during the wettest parts of the year with maximum temperatures between 39 and 41°C (102 and 105°F) during the rainy season and minimum temperatures between nine and 11°C (48 and 52°F) during the dry season (Dietz et al. 1994a).


Wild golden lion tamarins in Poço das Antas Biological Reserve spend most of their time in swamp forests which are largely undisturbed and intact compared to adjacent hillside forests. The trees in the swamp forests have cavities that are preferred sleeping sites and also have more of a variety of foraging opportunities compared to other areas of the reserve (Dietz et al. 1997; Kierulff et al. 2002a). With more undisturbed habitat available at União, golden lion tamarins are seen in hilly primary forest. In both reserves abundance of lianas and bromeliads are important indicators of where golden lion tamarins spend the majority of their time.

L. rosalia
Photo: Lisa G. Rapaport

Golden lion tamarins are omnivores feeding on a wide variety of food items including fruits, flowers, insects, small vertebrates (including small reptiles), exudates, nectar, and bird eggs (Kleiman 1988; Dietz et al. 1997; Kinzey 1997). Though the majority of the remaining golden lion tamarin habitat is degraded, microhabitats exist throughout their range and are vitally important to foraging habits and other daily ranging patterns. Microhabitats in Poço das Antas include bromeliads, palm crowns, palm leaf sheaths, woody crevices, lianas, vine tangles, tree bark, rotten logs, and leaf litter (Dietz et al. 1997; Kierulff et al. 2002a). These small, but species-rich areas are important because golden lion tamarins are so adept at using their elongated fingers to catch small, cryptic prey hiding in crevices, under leaves, and in dense growth. This procedure of micromanipulation in which they use their elongated hand and fingers to extract embedded food earns lion tamarins the description of manipulative feeders (Stoinski et al. 2003). While insects make up about 10 to 15% of their diet, a more substantial part of their diet consists of small, sweet, pulpy fruits that grow on trees rather than on vines or lianas (Kierulff et al. 2002a). Fruit makes up about 80% of their diet during the rainy season, when it is readily available, but during the drier times of the year, golden lion tamarins supplement their diet with other foods such as nectars and gums (Kierulff et al. 2002a). Insects are also relatively scarce during the dry season and therefore lion tamarins rely on with other animal prey such as reptiles (Dietz et al. 1994a). Because of their primary reliance on both fruit and insects with additional foods consumed in much smaller quantities, golden lion tamarins are sometimes referred to as fauni-frugivores (Kleiman et al. 1988; Dietz et al. 1997).

Lion tamarins are active for about nine to 12 hours each day, leaving their nesting sites between shortly after sunrise and entering a new nighttime den shortly before dusk (Kierulff et al. 2002a). After leaving the sleeping site, golden lion tamarins travel and feed throughout the early morning, concentrating on fruits and, as the morning progresses, on insects. Most of the early afternoon is spent foraging for insects and resting. The late afternoon is spent traveling to the night's sleeping site (Kierulff et al. 2002a). Golden lion tamarins sleep as a group in hollow tree cavities or in dense vines and epiphytes. They prefer sites that are between 11 and 15 m (36.1 and 49.2 ft) off the ground and repeatedly use sites within their home range, but do not generally sleep in the same spot on consecutive nights (Kleiman et al. 1988; Dietz et al. 1997). One of the reasons they sleep in relatively concealed places is to avoid predators. Being small-bodied animals, golden lion tamarins are susceptible to predation by raptors, snakes, felids and other small, arboreal carnivores (Kleiman et al. 1988; Kinzey 1997; Kierulff et al. 2002a).

L. rosalia
Photo: Roy Fontaine

During the warmer, wetter times of the year, when day length is longer, golden lion tamarins start their activities earlier and stop later than during the colder, drier season (Kierulff et al. 2002a). They vary their activity levels by season probably because of the type and quantity of food available. Feeding on gum is a behavior seen in all callitrichids, but golden lion tamarins rely on exudates only opportunistically or during the dry season, when other preferred foods are scarcer. They also use nectar as a source of sugar when fruits are most scarce. They may also spend more time foraging for insects during the dry season because of the overall scarcity of resources (Dietz et al. 1997; Kierulff et al. 2002a).

Population densities across study sites vary because of the nature of habitat fragmentation coupled with the extremely low numbers of golden lion tamarins in the wild. In Poço das Antas, the largest protected area in which they are found, there are about 12 individuals per square kilometer (7.46 per square mile). At União, however, there is a much smaller population and therefore the population density is lower with only 3.5 individuals per square kilometer (2.17 per square mile) (Kierulff et al. 2002a). Home range sizes and day ranges probably correspond to population density, resource distribution, and seasonal abundance of food resources (Rylands 1996; Kierulff et al. 2002a). Golden lion tamarins at Poço das Antas have home ranges about .45 km² (.174 mi²) and move about 1339 m (.832 mi) per day (Dietz et al. 1997). Much time is spent on the peripheral edges of their home ranges while little time is spent in the center. With the highest population density of golden lion tamarins in the world, groups may need to spend time protecting their territories from other groups rather than exploiting the center areas of their home ranges as is seen in lion tamarins at União (Kierulff et al. 2002a). At União, home ranges are large, about 1.5 km² (.579 mi²), and the golden lion tamarins there move about 1873 m (1.16 mi) per day (Kierulff et al. 2002a). They also tend to concentrate their time in the center of their home ranges and do little peripheral territory control. With fewer animals per square kilometer, competition for resources is not as strong as elsewhere and the energetic demands of defending such large home ranges is not practical given the low population densities and subsequently low levels of competition for resources (Peres 2000).

Content last modified: December 1, 2010

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Karen Bales and Lisa G. Rapaport.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2010 December 1. Primate Factsheets: Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <>. Accessed 2014 April 17.