Golden lion tamarins are tiny in stature but large in personality. Relegated to a narrow shrinking band of forest along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, the pocket-size monkey, as with so many other animal species, have struggled to maintain their place on Earth.
But lucky for these Lilliputian-esque primates, whose gold manes resemble that of a lion, researchers such as Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD Environmental Science ’11, are using their zoological know-how to find ways to ensure that golden lion tamarins stick around for generations to come.
“I really enjoy their charisma,” says Mickelberg. “They are always so energetic, and every day there is always something new that they are doing. That’s why I love working with them.”
While she often travels to Brazil, Mickelberg does much of her work saving this diminutive species from a windowless office in an off-the-beaten-path section of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., as well as from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.
She began working at the Smithsonian facility in 2000, when she was hired to manage the golden lion tamarin international captive breeding program. At the time, the species’ population hovered around 1,100 in the wild. Today, with much of the credit going to dedicated scientists such as Mickelberg, their numbers now stand at 1,600, with more than a third of those born in captivity and reintroduced into the forests of Brazil.
“It is so exciting to see the population grow, grow, and grow,” Mickelberg says, while standing next to a glass-enclosed exhibit in the zoo’s Small Mammal House that contains several of the monkeys.
In the animal kingdom, golden lion tamarins are a fascinating lot. They live in monogamous family groups. Females almost always give birth to twins, and the males do most of the child carrying. “[Having twins] is really rare in the mammal world. So it’s kind of neat that they do this, and their tight social structure is really fun to watch,” Mickelberg points out.
Mickelberg, originally from Minneapolis, describes part of her job as being a “monkey matchmaker,” pairing male and female golden lion tamarins based on their genetic relatedness in the hope that they reproduce. She also travels annually to Brazil to work with officials there to help develop a management plan to ensure the long-term viability of the golden lion tamarin population. “They take the conservation of the golden lion tamarins very seriously,” she says of officials in Brazil, where the creature is emblazoned on banknotes.
In the United States, an international program to save the golden lion tamarin was born at the National Zoo in the early 1970s, when the species’ population numbered only 200. That program is now based in Brazil, but the zoo is still very much involved in the animal’s recovery. Recently, a big part of the zoo’s conservation effort has been a free-ranging exhibit, where the monkeys—outfitted with radio collars—are allowed to wander uncaged and untethered in a section of the zoo so they can be studied in a natural setting. Mickelberg heads this program, which involves volunteers who monitor the territorial monkeys, recording their behaviors and actions. (The program is currently on hold while a new elephant exhibit is being constructed.)
Mickelberg, who teaches part time in Mason’s College of Science, is also co-keeper of the golden lion tamarin studbook, a pedigree database containing information on all members of the species ever held in captivity throughout the world. She cites the book almost daily as she answers questions about the animals from zoos around the globe.
“For me, working with a species that was so endangered at 200 animals—and now we’ve come up to 1,600—is such a great thing,” she says. “I feel privileged to be able to work on this program and to work with these incredible animals.”
Mickelberg adds that while the species is still endangered, the monkeys are accomplished breeders and have thrived when reintroduced into the wild, two traits that bode well for their future.
“When given the opportunity, they do quite well,” she explains. “So as long as we can secure land for them in Brazil, there is a good chance they are going to make it.”
To learn more, visit www.savetheliontamarin.org.