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Tamarin tale: tracking down a new species.

Tamarin tale: Tracking down a new species

Peering into the tangled thickets of a Brazilian coastal island, two biologists have spied colorful little monkeys where little monkeys shouldn't be. They say the creatures represent a previously undescribed species of lion tamarin, a genus that includes soime of the rarest and most endangered primates in the world.

Lured by obscure historical references and local denizens telling of a sagui, or little monkey, dwelling farther south than any documented primate of that size, Maria Lucia Lorini and Vanessa Guerra Persson set off last February for Superagui, a 35,000-acre island approximately 250 kilometers south of Sao Pau lo.

Upon learning of their quest, a local fisherman welcomed the biologists and, in an act of friendship, handed them a dead lion tamarin unlike any they had seen before. Within a month, the team had identified two family groups of the enigmatic monkeys of Superagui, for a total of about two dozen individuals.

The find is "one of the most amazing primatological discoveries in this century," says Russell A. Mittermeier of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., who has studied primates in coastal Brazil for the past 12 years. Identifying a new type of monkey on an inhabited island flanked north and south by mainland resort developments "is almost like finding a major new species in the suburbs of Los Angeles," he says.

Lorini and Persson, of the Natural History Museum in Curitiba, Brazil, formally announced their discovery on June 11, describing it as a new species in the bulletin of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Like the three previously known species of lion tamarin, the black-faced lion tamarin, or Leontopithecus caissara, is a squirrel-like monkey with a small face framed by a luxuriant mane. However, it is district from the others in combining a black face with a golden body on a slightly larger frame, says Dante Martins Teixeira, head of vertebrate zoology at the Rio museum.

Teixeira notes that some primate taxonomists view all types of lion tamarins as one species and thus may not accept the black-faced version as a species unto itself. Mittermeier, who disputes such "lumping" of lion tamarins, says: "The four populations are each separated by at least several hundred kilometers. When populations don't overlap and are clearly morphologically distinct, then my feeling is you call them species."

Scientists are unanimous, however, in calling lion tamarins endangered. Today, these animals live wild only in remnant forest patches or rapidly developing eastern Brazil, where they collectively number in the low thousands. One, the black lion tamarin, may have dwindled to fewer than 200 individuals in the wild, Mittermeier says. The black-faced lion tamarin appears even more scarce.

Teixeira is organizing a July expedition to Superagui in hopes of learning more about the genus' nearest member. He and other biologists are also pressing the Brazilian government to extend the boundaries of a national park on Superagui to include the forest where the blackfaced lion tamarins live. Although the island still lacks electricity or bridges to the mainland, it does possess one dangerously attractive commodity: a beautiful beach. "There is a plan to construct a little Miami on this island," Teixeira warns.
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Title Annotation:Brazilian monkeys
Author:Stolzenburg, William
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 30, 1990
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