BLACK-FACED LION TAMARIN
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Black-faced lion tamarins belong to the primate family known as Callitrichidae. They are native to Brazil, where two primary populations occupy two separate regions in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. One population resides on the island of Superagui along the northeast coast of Paraná state. Formerly a peninsula, this artificial island was created as a consequence of the Varadouro canal, constructed in 1953. These tamarins dwell in the valleys of Rio Sebuí and Rio dos Patos within the easternmost municipality of Guaraqueçaba. The south coast of São Paulo is home to the second population. Here black-faced lion tamarins are found in the ecoregion of Lagamar within Cananeia (Brazil’s southernmost city) and the village of Ariri.
Superagui’s population inhabits tall, lowland forests and forests that grow from sandy soil, known as arboreal restinga. Altitudes range from sea level to isolated hills that reach 803 ft (245 m). São Paulo’s mainland population inhabits swampy and inundated secondary forests. Both populations avoid submontane forests and rely on mature forests with little gap in the canopy for their survival. They have no tolerance for environmental disturbances.
Considered a conservation hotspot and one of our planet’s most crucial biomes, Brazil’s increasingly fragmented Atlantic Rainforest is the tenuous host to this fragile primate species. As their habitat, only totaling a mere 67 sq miles (17,300 hectares), continues to shrink within an already restricted geographic range, the species becomes further imperiled.
Of all the callitrichids (other members include marmosets and lion tamarins), black-faced lion tamarins occupy the Atlantic Forest’s southernmost limits.
When this species was first documented in 1990, on the island of Superagui, researchers believed it to be a subspecies of the black lion tamarin, which itself was once considered a subspecies of the golden lion tamarin. But five years of population surveys not only expanded the primates’ geographic distribution to include adjacent parts of the mainland in the states of Parana and Sao Paulo, these additional studies also led researchers to conclude that the black-faced lion tamarin deserves full species status.
Today, the IUCN recognizes four species of lion tamarins:
- Black-faced lion tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara), sometimes referred to as the Superagüi lion tamarin
- Black lion tamarin (L. chrysopygus), also known as the golden-rumped lion tamarin
- Golden lion tamarin (L. rosalia), also known as the golden marmoset
- Golden-headed lion tamarin (L. chrysomelas), also known as the golden-headed tamarin
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
These small New World monkeys are the size of large squirrels, weighing about 1.3 pounds (0.6 kg) with a head-to-body length of 12 inches (30.5 cm). A nonprehensile tail, incapable of grasping objects, adds another 17 inches (43.2 cm) to their small frame. There is very little apparent difference between females and males, thus sexual dimorphism is negligible in the species.
Lifespan for black-faced lion tamarins has not been reported. Possible clues to their longevity might be inferred from another member of their genus. A captive golden lion tamarin (L. rosalia) lived (or languished) in captivity for more than 28 years.
It’s not surprising that each of the four species of lion tamarins is colloquially referred to as “King of the Jungle,” as their genus, Leontopithecus, hints. Named for the luxurious mane surrounding their face, akin to the mane of a lion, these “little lion kings” may be far less formidable than the wild feline and acclaimed King of the Jungle—but they are no less enchanting.
A dark complexion distinguishes black-faced lion tamarins from others in their genus and gives the species its name. Further characterizing the face are round, chestnut-colored eyes that assess the environment from their position above a flat, broad muzzle. Two widely spaced, teardrop-shaped nostrils breathe in the scents of the rainforest, while narrow lips stretch beneath the muzzle, appearing as slightly downturned, evoking a frown. The tamarin’s furry mane, forearms, hands, feet, and long tail are black. A bright orange, silky pelage or coat adds dramatic contrast and swaddles the torso. The base of the tail is also orange.
Black-faced lion tamarins are primarily frugivores—they eat mostly fruits. Flowers, nectar, the young leaves of bromeliads, and tree gums are side dishes. And they enjoy fungi, particularly during the dry season. But these tamarins also eat insects, spiders, snails, snakes, the occasional frog, or small lizard.
Behavior and Lifestyle
These little-studied primates are diurnal and arboreal creatures; that is, they are active during daylight hours and spend the majority of their time in trees. Black-faced lion tamarins are sensitive to direct sunlight, so they spend the hottest part of the day within dense vegetation, protected from the sun’s rays. Like all callitrichids, their primary form of locomotion is quadrupedal (using all four limbs as they advance through their rainforest habitat). And, characteristic of callitrichids, they cling vertically to trees.
Tamarins have well-developed visual, olfactory, and auditory perceptual skills that serve them well in daily life. Days are spent foraging, and they follow a cognitive map that leads them to food sources and allows them to detect minor changes in the environment. Though their non-opposable thumbs don’t contribute much to their foraging effort, these primates’ long fingers easily pluck fruits from trees while their claw-like nails deftly dig beneath the bark to dig out insect prey. Epiphytic bromeliads (so-called “air plants”) along with leaf litter piles within vines and the crowns of palm trees offer a trove of gastronomic delicacies.
Overnight, black-faced lion tamarins ensconce themselves inside tree cavities or holes that are often dug out by woodpeckers. Not only do these sleeping dens provide them with a measure of safety from predators, they also afford convenient foraging opportunities for snacking on insects and other unsuspecting animal prey. (Who doesn’t occasionally get the midnight munchies?)
To avoid becoming a snack themselves, black-faced lion tamarins vary their sleeping sites. Well aware that predators “stake out” these locations, a troop’s dominant male leads members, single file, to and from a sleeping site. By being the first to arrive in the evening and the first to depart in the morning, he deliberately takes on higher risks to himself while giving others a chance to escape a lurking predator.
Predators of black-faced lion tamarins include black-hawk eagles (Spizaetus tyrannus), ornate hawk-eagles (S. ornatus), jaguars (Panthera onca), jaguarundis (Herpailurus yaguarondi), ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), and tayra (Eira barbara).
Black-faced lion tamarins are among the world’s rarest mammals.
The scientific name Leontopithecus caissara was given to the black-faced lion tamarin after the fishermen who lived on Superagui island where the species was first documented.
Italian scholar Jesuit Antonio Pigafetta (1480–1531), who accompanied famed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) in Magellan’s effort to circumnavigate the globe, referred to lion tamarins as “beautiful, simian-like cats similar to small lions.” The esteemed documentarian’s observation came hundreds of years before the black-faced lion tamarin’s “discovery” in 1990.
Social animals, black-faced lion tamarins live in multi-male/multi-female family groups (known as troops) comprised of a dominant male, his female breeding partner, and their offspring. Troop size ranges from 2 to 11 members, with an average of 5 individuals per troop.
Superagui’s population occupies a home range from 173 to 793 acres (70 to 321 hectares). São Paulo’s mainland population occupies a home range from 321 to 741 acres (130 to 300 hectares). These are not particularly territorial primates. In fact, when two or more troops overlap, they are known to share food sources with one another.
Upon reaching sexual maturity, both males and females disperse their natal (birth) group to seek mating opportunities elsewhere. Some individuals may decide to hang around a bit longer, however, as is characteristic of the cooperative breeding system of callitrichids. (In fact, Callitrichidae is the only family of nonhuman primates to exhibit cooperative breeding.) All members of a troop participate in child care. Unfortunately, these selfless helpers unwittingly contribute to a low population density by hindering the formation of new breeding pairs. On a positive note, patterns of dispersal and formation, arising from the migration of males and females between groups, allow the species to mitigate loss of genetic diversity despite a small population size.
Sympatric species on Superagui Island include broad-snouted caimans (Caiman latirostris); cougars (Felis concolor), brown howler monkeys (Alouatta fusca); Atlantic (or masked) titi monkeys (Callicebus personatus); large, neotropical rodents known as agoutis; deer; wild pigs; toucans; marine birds; highly venomous pit vipers known as jararaca; venomous coral snakes; red-tailed parrots (Amazona brasiliensis); and Endangered red-browed Amazon parrots (Chauá Amazona rhodocorytha).
Sympatric species in the São Paulo region include jaguars (this big, wild cat is Brazil’s national animal); ocelots; maned wolves (Chrysocyon brachyurus); giant otters; giant anteaters; Southern Tamanduas (Tamandua tetradactyla), aka the collared anteater or lesser anteater; crab-eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous), aka the forest fox, wood fox or maikong; bush dog (Speothos venaticus); and marmosets (Cebuella).
Communication methods include vocalizations, olfactory messaging, and tactile activity.
Long calls denote territorial boundaries and are also used to announce themselves to one another while out foraging. Alarm calls alert fellow members of a potential predator threat. Subtle differences in calls exist between the two sexes.
Olfactory messaging is important in tamarin societies. Secretions from specialized scent glands in the anogenital region, the suprapubic area, above the sternum (breast bone), and possibly at the corners of this primate’s mouth convey important information. For example, oily secretions mixed with urine and genital discharge deposited on substrates in their environment contain information about individual identity, hierarchal rank, and hormonal condition. A breeding female leaves her scent to suppress the ovulation of other adult females in her group. Scent communication plays a role in sexual encounters, social encounters, and cooperative care of a troop’s infants (also called alloparenting). Scent-marking is also used to establish territorial boundaries. Different species use different glands for leaving scent cues; the context for this behavior also varies among species. Black-faced lion tamarins sometimes scent-mark their tree hole sleeping sites.
Mutual grooming not only helps to keep one another’s coat free of detritus; this tactile activity is key in establishing social bonds between members. A breeding couple is especially demonstrative when it comes to grooming one another.
Females attain sexual maturity (able to conceive and bear young) at about 18 months of age. Males lag behind a bit, attaining sexuality maturity (able to sire young) at 24 months of age. The species is mostly monogamous, having one mating partner, though occurrences of polyandrous and polygamous relationships have been reported in callitrichids.
A breeding couple mates once a year. To ensure that she is the only adult female to conceive and bear young, the dominant (breeding) female secretes pheromonal cues that suppress ovulation in other females in the troop. After a gestation period of about four months, she gives birth to twins—and, occasionally, to triplets or even quadruplets. Infants are born with full fur coats and with their eyes open. Births occur between September and March.
While it is the mother who nurses her babies, all members of a troop help with infant care. Researchers have linked this cooperative breeding ethic to the species’ evolution of social behavior. Males are usually more involved than females. The father is especially attentive to his offspring, carrying his children everywhere for the first month of their lives, except when the babies are nursing from their mother every 2 to 3 hours. Older twins (those who’ve delayed their dispersal from their natal group) relieve their father by taking turns carrying their infant siblings, who cling to the neck and shoulders of their carriers. Juvenile siblings are built-in playmates to “toddler” tamarins.
Infants begin eating solid foods between 4 and 6 weeks of age, at which time they begin venturing away from their caregivers for brief foraging excursions. By 10 weeks of age, they are often completely self-sufficient.
By dispersing the seeds of the many fruits they eat, via their feces, black-faced lion tamarins play a crucial role in the regeneration of their forest habitat.
Their predatory behavior upon insects, spiders, snails, and the occasional snake, frog, or small lizard likely has some effect on the population of these creatures. And, being prey snacks themselves, black-faced tamarins’ population decline probably impacts their predators.
The black-faced lion tamarin is classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, August 2021), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Previously, the species had been classified as Critically Endangered. This slight improvement in conservation status shouldn’t be viewed as “all is well” with the species, however. All is not well.
The IUCN estimates the total number of mature individuals to be no more than 250 and the number of mature individuals in each population no more than 50. Their restricted range and small population size leaves black-faced tamarins vulnerable to increasing habitat loss, degradation of habitat, fragmentation, poaching, and unregulated tourism.
Several anthropogenic (human-caused) activities conspire against the species. The harvesting of palm hearts (known as pupunha), the conversion of pristine tracts of forest into land for cattle ranching, and urban expansion have collectively led to extensive habitat loss. For a species with no tolerance for changes and disturbances in its environment—whose survival depends on mature tall forests, this loss is devastating.
Construction of the Varadouro Canal in 1953 fragmented the shared habitat between the Paraná and São Paulo populations, isolating the two populations from one another and thereby interrupting the species’ gene flow and leading to a decrease in genetic diversity.
Even though the geographic distribution for these Endangered primates occurs within designated protected areas, protection laws are difficult to enforce and are often flouted. Poaching and illegal logging occur.
Furthermore, a disconnect between environmental agencies has, in the past, weakened protection initiatives.
Black-faced lion tamarins are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
These Endangered primates live within the following conservation areas:
- Lagamar Mosaic, a patchwork of 43 conservation units within the states of São Paulo and Paraná
- Within Paraná: Guaraqueçaba Environmental Protection Area and Superagui National Park
- Within São Paulo: Cananeia-Iguape-Peruíbe Environmental Protection Area, Lagamar de Cananeia State Park, Tumba Island Extractive Reserve, Itapanhapima Sustainable Development Reserve, and Taquari Extractive Reserve
To be guaranteed a safe existence as decreed in the creation of these conservation areas, wildlife protection laws must be enforced.
Fortunately, several organizations are working to protect this species from extinction. Leading the effort is The Black-faced Lion Tamarin Conservation Program. Endorsing the black-faced lion tamarin as a flagship species, the program promotes extensive environmental education while integrating biodiversity conservation with sustainable development and economic practices in the regions. BFLT Conservation Program has partnered with the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, named after the current president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi (elected in May 2022). The fund functions as a philanthropic organization by providing grants to conservation groups, allowing them to “fight the extinction crisis instead of bureaucracy and red-tape.” WildInvest is another philanthropic group dedicated to protecting wildlife species that supports the BFLT Conservation Program through much-needed grants.
A study carried out between July 2019 and January 2021 by the Brazilian nonprofit, non-government organization (NGO) Sociedade de Pesquisa em Vida Selvagem e Educação Ambiental (SPVS) used camera traps and microphones to “capture” and listen-in on these Endangered primates. The main objectives of this study were to gain further knowledge about the species’ geographic distribution and population, assess environmental predictors (as example, lion tamarins’ susceptibility to yellow fever), and establish a long-term population monitoring program that employs local people. Analysis is ongoing. SPVS’s latest goal is to physically capture black-faced lion tamarins, fit them with radio collars, and track their movements. The NGO is also working to cultivate positive relationships with municipal leaders for better conservation of the species.
Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas is a local organization dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation of these Endangered primates with the citizenry who live within or near this primate’s habitat.
Written by Kathleen Downey, September 2022