The lion-tailed macaque is one of the rarest and most threatened primates in the world.
Named for their distinctive tufted tails and silver manes surrounding bare faces, their resemblance to the lion mostly ends there. These primates are small, shy and, by monkey standards, quiet.
They live their lives almost entirely in the shadow-filled upper branches of rain forest in India’s Western Ghats mountains, and, unlike other macaques, they prefer to avoid contact with humans.
Lion-Tailed Macaque Physical Traits
These beautiful monkeys have silky black fur, and both males and females have striking silver manes that surround their faces from their cheeks to their chins. They’re the smallest macaque species, weighing 20 pounds and standing 2 feet tall at the most. They’re classified as Old World monkeys and are more closely related to apes and humans than they are to the primates that are native to Central and South America.
Lion-tailed macaques are quadrupedal, using four limbs to get around, and their tufted tails assist with balance rather than with grabbing branches or holding food. Their hands and feet have opposable thumbs that they use for agile gathering of food and grooming.
The lion-tailed macaque uses cheek pouches to store food. These pouches can hold the same amount of food as their stomachs. They prefer diets of fruit but are omnivores that supplement their fruit diets with foods like seeds, flowers, insects, small lizards and bird eggs.
Lion-Tailed Macaque Life and Behavior
Lion-tailed macaques are diurnal, foraging for food and being active only during the day. They live in patriarchal groups of 10 to 20 monkeys. These territorial primates defend their area from neighboring troops, and they’re the only macaques that use a call to mark their boundaries. The males start with loud cries to warn invaders, and if that doesn’t work, a chase that can turn into an aggressive battle ensues.
One dominant male is responsible for breeding in the group. The female lion-tailed macaque typically has its first baby when she’s 6 years old. She gestates for 170 days, and about two and a half years pass between births. This slow reproductive rate contributes to the challenge of protecting and repopulating this species.
Males born into a group typically leave between the ages of 4 and 7 years old. They live in all-male groups until they are skilled and strong enough to lead a troop of their own, facing fierce competition from other male macaques. Lion-tailed macaques have an average life span of about 20 years in the wild and have lived as long as 38 years in captivity.
The Lion-Tailed Macaque in Pop Culture
Many zoos around the world are making efforts to help with the repopulation of this endangered species, and they make significant efforts to support their lion-tailed macaque troops. A story from the Camperdown Wildlife Centre in Dundee, Scotland, illustrates the complexity of the relationships between these sensitive primates. The zoo decided to shut down for nearly a week after a young lion-tailed macaque died to give the troop time and space to mourn. Part of the macaque’s grieving process is to guard and preen the deceased troop member’s remains. It’s believed that this natural behavior helps the troop to come to terms with its loss.
Threats to the Lion-Tailed Macaque
The endangered lion-tailed macaque’s biggest threat is the encroachment of human development that destroys their habitat. It’s difficult to count these monkeys because they prefer to avoid human contact, but conservationists estimate that there are fewer than 2,500 in the wild.
Conservation efforts have been underway in southern India since 1972 to protect the lion-tailed macaques with some success, but continuous efforts are essential for this amazing species’ future ability to thrive.