Tarsiers: Strange and Threatened Primates of Southeast Asia
Tarsiers are strange primates with huge eyes that look too big for their face. Each eye is as large as the tarsier’s brain. The animal's thin and elongated fingers and toes have large adhesive pads at their tips, making them look swollen. Tarsiers also have very long and powerful hind legs which are folded up when they aren’t being used. Their strange appearance often reminds people of Yoda, the Jedi master in the Star Wars movies.
In the wild, tarsiers live only on the islands of Southeast Asia. They are generally nocturnal, although they may be active at dawn and dusk as well. They make their home in trees or sometimes in shrubs. Here they climb and leap with ease. They catch most of their food—insects and other small animals—in the trees. They also sleep, mate, and have their babies in the trees.
There is still a lot that is unknown about the natural life of a tarsier. Unfortunately, the populations of many species of the animal are in trouble. These species need our help in order to survive.
Discovering the Tarsier
In May 2017, scientists announced that they had discovered two new species of tarsiers on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Before this discovery, there were often said to be eighteen species of tarsiers in existence. There is some disagreement about how the animals should be classified, however.
Types of Tarsiers
According to the latest classification scheme, there are three different groups of tarsiers: the western tarsier (genus Cephalopachus), the eastern tarsiers (genus Tarsius) and the Philippine tarsier (genus Carlito). Each genus contains different species and subspecies.
A tarsier's soft fur is grey or brown and may have buff or reddish patches. Fur color isn’t a reliable way to distinguish the types of tarsiers from each other, though. The different species differ in features such as body size, size of their eyes, limb proportions, and vocalizations. Another difference is the length of the tail tuft. A tarsier has a long tail which is hairless except for a tuft at the end.
Tarsiers are small animals. Although they are sometimes said to be the world’s smallest primate, that honour actually goes to the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur of Madagascar. This mouse lemur has an average weight of 1.1 ounces and a head plus body length of 3.6 inches. The pygmy tarsier is also a tiny primate but is slightly bigger that the mouse lemur. It weighs about 2 ounces and has a head plus body length of about 3.8 inches. The bigger tarsiers may reach around 5.2 inches in length (not counting the tail) and about 5.4 ounces in weight.
The tarsier has the largest eyes relative to its body size of any mammal. In some types the eyes are not only large but also bulging. The eyes of a tarsier can’t rotate, but the animal can turn its head almost 180 degrees in each direction. This feature gives it a 360 degree view of the world and enables it to leap backwards.
Hands and Feet
The third finger is the largest of the digits in the hand. Most of the tarsier's digits have nails, but there are grooming claws on the second and third toes.
The name “tarsier” comes from the elongated tarsal bones in the animal’s feet. The big tarsal bones, the long hind legs, which are about twice as long as the animal's head and body, and the strong leg muscles make the tarsier a very good leaper.
The Eyes of a Tarsier
Tarsiers need their large eyes to help them see in the dark. Unlike the eyes of many other nocturnal animals, tarsier eyes lack a tapetum lucidum. The tapetum is a light-reflecting layer behind the retina at the back of the eyeballs. The retina is the part of the eye that detects light. When light strikes the retina of an animal with a tapetum, some of the light is absorbed. Some passes through the retina and hits the tapetum, however. It’s then reflected back to the retina, which absorbs some of the reflected light. The tapetum therefore gives the retina two chances to absorb light rays, helping the animal see better in the dark. Tarsiers need their large eyes to see at night since they don’t have a tapetum to help their vision.
The Philippine tarsier is said to have the largest eyes in proportion to its body size of any animal on the planet. The giant squid has the largest eyes in the world with respect to the physical size of the eye.
Tarsiers live in forests and treed areas of various types. They also inhabit areas with shrubs or bamboo plants. The animals are sometimes seen in grasslands but seem to use these areas only to travel from one habitat to another.
Tarsiers are often found clinging to a trunk or branch only around six feet above the ground. They sometimes move higher in the trees or leave a tree and come to the ground. They move through the trees mainly by climbing and leaping. They also walk on all four legs and have been observed hopping on their hind legs.
The independent movement of a tarsier's ears helps the animal to locate its prey. Its long hind legs provide a powerful thrust for its leaps. Tarsiers often leap on to the prey to catch it. The Philippine tarsier has even been observed catching insects in the air, using its hands as a cage.
The tarsier is the only primate that is entirely carnivorous. The diet consists mainly of insects, such as crickets, beetles, and termites, but tarsiers will also eat small frogs, lizards, crabs, snakes, birds, and even small bats and fish. They eat live prey and keep their eyes closed as they chew.
An Expressive Primate
Most tarsiers seem to be social animals, but the degree of closeness and social interaction varies according to the species. Although tarsiers generally live in groups, the space between the group members during their various activities varies. The most social animals snuggle together, groom each other, and play with each other. They may also share food.
The animals sleep in tangled vegetation or in tree cavities. They sleep alone or with one or more companions, depending on the type of tarsier. The Philippine tarsier is a solitary animal.
Tarsiers are vocal animals and produce a wide variety of sounds. Some male-female pairs sing sunrise duets together before they go to sleep. Researchers have found that the spectral tarsier makes 15 different sounds in addition to the morning duet. These sounds include a variety of alarm calls, contact sounds, and food calls.
Tarsiers are territorial. They patrol their territory and advertise it with scent marking and vocalizations. The animals have scent glands on their lips and abdomens. Urine, feces, and fluids from their reproductive tracts also contain smelly chemicals that serve to mark a territory or communicate with other tarsiers in the same group. Tarsiers may group together to chase potential invaders away.
During the day a tarsier frequently furls its ears (rolls or folds them up) and then unfurls them. A tarsier indicates fear by keeping its ears furled. It shows aggression by crouching with an open mouth and lunging or by standing on two legs.
Reproduction and Lifespan
Mating behaviour varies. Some tarsier species appear to be monogamous, with one male mating with one female. In other species, a male seems to mate with several females.
Gestation lasts five or six months. Only one baby is born. The babies are large at birth and weigh 20% to 33% of the adult's weight. Their eyes are open and their fur has developed. The youngsters are able to climb almost immediately after they are born. The mother carries her baby around in her mouth, however.
The young tarsier develops rapidly. Weaning takes place when the baby is about eighty days old. In at least some species, other females help the mother to take care of the baby.
The lifespan of the different tarsier species is uncertain. In the wild, some individuals are believed to live for twenty years or more. The lifespan is generally much shorter in captivity.
The Tarsius Project: Tarsier Research and Conservation
Red List Categories
LC: Least Concern
NT: Near Threatened
CR: Critically Endangered
EW: Extinct in the Wild
Animals classified in the Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered category are said to be threatened.
Predators of tarsiers include owls, tree snakes, monitor lizards, civets, and feral cats. Some humans hunt tarsiers for food. Habitat destruction for agriculture and human settlement is the biggest threat to tarsier survival, however, as it is for so many endangered animals.
Tarsiers sometimes travel through agricultural areas. Here farmers may kill the animals, unaware that they aren't eating the crops but are instead eating the insect pests feeding on the crops. Political unrest has also destroyed tarsier habitats. In addition, the animals are captured for the pet trade.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) maintains a "Red List" which identifies the population status of different animals. The tarsier species surveyed by the IUCN have been classified in the Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered categories of the Red List.
A Visit to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation
In general, tarsiers don't do well in captivity and have a high death rate. They sometimes repeatedly bang their heads against the bars of their enclosure, injuring themselves. Some people are keeping captive tarsiers in large and natural habitats, however. These people have been more successful in breeding the animals and in keeping them relatively happy.
There are some organizations—such as the Philippine Tarsier Foundation—that are trying to keep captive tarsiers physically and mentally healthy and to breed them. They also aim to educate the public, research tarsier behaviour, and conserve the habitat of the wild animals.
All tarsiers used to be classified in the genus Tarsius, but the Philippine tarsier is now placed in the genus Carlito. The genus is named after Carlito Pizarras in honour of his efforts to protect tarsiers and his successful breeding of captive animals. Pizarras is associated with the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. He's often known by the name of Nong Lito and is sometimes called "The Tarsier Man" because of his conservation efforts. Conservation organizations and people committed to tarsier protection are badly needed in order to save the wild populations of this fascinating little animal.
"Tarsier." National Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin - Madison. http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/tarsier (accessed August 16, 2017).
"Interesting Facts." Philippine Tarsier Foundation. http://www.tarsierfoundation.org/the-philippine-tarsier/the-tarsiers-of-bohol (accessed August 16, 2017).
"Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta)." The Tarsius Project. http://www.tarsiusproject.org/philippine-tarsiers/ (accessed August 16, 2017).
Arnold, Carrie. "Tiny New 'Forest Goblins' Discovered, Look Like Yoda." National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/tarsiers-indonesia-new-species-star-wars/ (accessed August 16, 3017).
© 2011 Linda Crampton