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Tarsiers: Strange and Threatened Primates of Southeast Asia

Updated on August 16, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A Philippine tarsier in a sanctuary
A Philippine tarsier in a sanctuary | Source

Fascinating Primates

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.

A tarsier in a zoo
A tarsier in a zoo | Source

Physical Appearance

Size

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.

Eyes

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

Vision

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.

Habitat

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.

A tarsier family
A tarsier family | Source

Diet

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

Behaviour

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.

A tarsier couple
A tarsier couple | Source

Territories

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

VU: Vulnerable

EN: Endangered

CR: Critically Endangered

EW: Extinct in the Wild

EX: Extinct

Animals classified in the Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered category are said to be threatened.

Population Status

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.

Conservation

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.

References

"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

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Alun. I hope that tarsiers survive. I think that they are fascinating animals.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 16 months ago from Essex, UK

      Thanks Linda for this informative, comprehensive and well presented article about tarsiers. Although I have heard of tarsiers before and seen them in wildlife documentaries, I have sadly never seen one in real life, and I certainly didn't know there were so many species. One hopes that all can be conserved but I would imagine in the parts of the world where they live, those in very restricted habitats may have a poor outlook. I hope not. Alun

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, natures47friend.

    • natures47friend profile image

      natures47friend 6 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      Great hub. Greenpeace would love it!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Martie! I appreciate your visit very much.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      An excellent, well-written and informative hub about the Tarsier. I enjoyed the read tremendously. Thanks, Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nell. Yes, I got both your comments. Thank you very much for the visit and the vote! I agree with you - it is a shame that animals like tarsiers are in trouble

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

      Hi, not sure if you got my comment? this is a really interesting hub, I love them they are so cute! and the fact that they sing to each other! rated up! cheers nell

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

      Hi, these are definitely cute! gorgeous little creatures, and they sing to each other! such a shame that we have to protect animals, everybody should respect and protect them, well detailed, voted up! cheers nell

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit, the comment and the vote, Eddy. I hope that you have a good day too!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      I thororughly enjoyed this hub. i love anything to do with nature/wildlife etc,so I can assure you that this one was a treat;so an up up and away.

      I bookmark into my 'Animals and nature' slot and thank you for sharing.

      Takecare and enjoy your day.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for the new comment, HikeGuy! Animals and nature are two of my favorite topics to write about.

    • HikeGuy profile image

      Bryce 6 years ago from Northern California Coast

      That makes sense -- closing the eyes is a natural way to protect them. I hope to see more amazing work from you. (No pressure!) This is one of my favorite hubs.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot for the comment and the votes, Peggy! I appreciate your visit.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thank you for this wonderful hub about the tarsiers. I learned much from reading your hub and watching the videos. Up, useful and interesting votes!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, HikeGuy. It's nice to meet you and plinka! Like you, I think that tarsiers are amazing. It is interesting to see a tarsier close its eyes while eating. It's thought that tarsiers close their eyes when they're eating living prey to avoid injury.

    • HikeGuy profile image

      Bryce 6 years ago from Northern California Coast

      Wonderful! Such a detailed and appreciative introduction to these amazing animals. That's fascinating about their eyes. Terrific detail that they close their eyes to eat -- as though savoring. I'm glad Plinka shared this.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot for the visit and the comment, AllSuretyBonds!

    • AllSuretyBonds profile image

      AllSuretyBonds 6 years ago

      These little guys are different looking but they are still so adorable! I learned something new today. Thank you for sharing.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, writer20! Tarsiers are strange animals, but I think that they are fascinating.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 6 years ago from Southern Nevada

      I think hes a cutey also your hub is very good.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for your comment and your insight, Peter. I'm sad to hear that Philippine tarsiers are being treated badly.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think tarsiers qualify as weird animals! I'm looking forward to reading your aye-aye hub.

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

      Great write up. Thank you. Sadly exploited by the corrupt and ignorant in the Philippines still.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      The tarsiers are different looking - no question about that. I once planned on doing a hub about them myself in my weird animal series but ended up instead doing one about the aye-aye which is also somewhat strange looking: "Weird Animals - the Aye-Aye."

      This was excellent research, alicia, presented in a very interesting manner. Thank you.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, carrie. Probably many people would think that tarsiers are ugly and cute at the same time. I think that they're cute! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, plinka! Yes, it's good to know which animals are endangered. Unfortunately human activities are increasing the number of threatened animal populations.

    • carriethomson profile image

      carriethomson 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      hey that's an interesting creature!! cannote decide if its ugly or its cute!! i guess its ugly but adorable. and oh my god they are so small!! palm size almost

      carrie

    • plinka profile image

      plinka 6 years ago from Budapest, Hungary

      It's nice to draw attention to endangered species. Very good hub! Voted up and shared!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Baileybear. Yes, tarsiers do look rather odd! They're interesting creatures too. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Baileybear 6 years ago

      they look like gremlins - rather odd looking creature