23.3a – The Tarsier

Eyes on the prize. (Philippine Tarsier photo by Kok Leng Yeo)

If you break the primate tree into its two most basic divisions, all of the primates we’ve looked at so far — the lemurs, the loris, and the galago — belong to one group, and all of the primates still to come belong to the other. That former group, with the lemurs and such, is called strepsirrhine, and they are the wet-nosed primates. All of the others are in a group called haplorhine, and they are the dry-nosed primates.

There are a few other differences between them besides the dampness of their noses. The lemur group, as with most mammals, can make its own Vitamin C within its body, for example, which means they have no need to include citrus fruit or some other source in their diet; but the dry-nosed primates, which includes humans, lack this ability. To make up for it, the dry-nosed primates have much larger brains in proportion to their bodies.

The divide between these two groups took place approximately 63 million years ago. The first type of animal to separate from the rest of the dry-nosed primates — at least among those that survive today — were the tarsiers. In fact, they are such an old type of dry-nosed primate that even today some scientists debate which of the two groups they belong to.

But what is a tarsier? There are about ten species of tarsier, give or take a few we haven’t fully settled on yet, and they are small, strange-looking primates that look either very cute or nightmarishly alien, depending on your frame of mind.

The reason for this is their enormous eyes. I don’t want you to think I’m being hyperbolic when I say “enormous”. In absolute terms, certainly, a small monkey can only have eyes that are so big, but the tarsier stretches the bounds of relativity. Each of its eyes — not both together, but each separate — is as big as the animal’s brain. These are the largest eyes relative to body size in the entire mammal world. They look like tiny, big-eyed gremlins.

But you can’t judge a book by its cover, I can hear you saying. Just because it looks a little strange doesn’t mean it’s anything to be afraid of, right? It’s basically a tiny monkey, isn’t it? And tiny monkeys are cute and curious and wonderful, aren’t they?

… aren’t they? (Philippine Tarsier photo by Serafin “Jun” Ramos, Jr)

The first thing to remember about a tarsier is that no, it is not a monkey at all. It is an early, primitive form of the type of primate that eventually produced monkeys. One of the key differences, besides the outward appearance, is that the tarsiers are the only one hundred percent carnivorous primates alive in the world today. They don’t seek out fruit or vegetable matter. They eat nothing but the crunchy, squirming flesh of other living beings, including snakes, bats, birds, and lots of insects. Which I suppose means we’re back to them being essentially gremlins.

But in truth they are shy creatures, and certainly not dangerous. They’re nocturnal and live in and around the jungle islands of southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Borneo. Many of them are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss, human hunting, and predation by feral cats.

Sometimes they are kept as pets by well-meaning humans. Keeping a wild animal as a pet is almost never a good idea, but with the tarsier it’s an even worse plan. The tarsier is one of the rare animals that does significantly worse in captivity than it does living in the wild. In the wild, with an abundant food supply and a thick jungle in which to move around, a tarsier can expect to live for 24 years. In captivity, they last only 12 years at most, and can die as young as two years old. In human terms, this is the equivalent of taking a person who can expect to live to the age of 72 and placing him in an environment where he may fade away and die by the age of 6. That’s a poor thing to do to an animal, no matter how cute they look.

Some tarsiers are even known to commit suicide in captivity. They don’t actually kill themselves on purpose, but the stress of lights, unfamiliar noises, and human handling can seriously frighten a shy tarsier, and they will sometimes react to this stress by smacking their own heads against objects in their enclosure. Since they have fairly thin skulls, this can cause death.

Fortunately it’s illegal to sell or trade many types of tarsiers. Conservation efforts in some countries seek to establish safe refuges for the animals, but their future remains uncertain.

Tarsier distribution

Tarsier distribution

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