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


23.2a – The Slow Loris

Slow and nervous — a toxic combination. (Sunda slow loris photo by David Haring)

In the leafy, tropical forests of southeast Asia, you may happen upon a slow loris — but you would probably never know it.

The slow loris is part of a group known as the lorisids. The ten species of lorisids live in southeast Asia and central Africa, and they include the slender loris, the potto, and the angwantibo. In general they are mid- to small-sized primates with large eyes and very short tails, if they have any tail at all.

But the slow loris is the most interesting of the lot, for one very obvious reason. It is the only type of primate in the world that is venomous.

This trait is extremely rare among mammals. The slow loris does not produce toxins directly in its mouth, but has a rather ingenious system in place. It produces a compound from a gland on its arm, and when it licks this gland, the compound mixes with its saliva to form a toxin inside the mouth. That sounds somewhat foolish and dangerous, but the toxin doesn’t harm the loris — it only harms things the loris bites.

But a slow loris is not an aggressive creature; its bite is used only in self-defense. The animal also licks the toxin into the fur of its young, so that predators will be less likely to look upon a slow loris as a tasty snack.

These precautions are important because of how the slow loris moves — as you might have guessed from the name, it moves very slowly. If you are fortunate enough to spot a slow loris in the jungle, chances are very good that it will be creeping along at a snail’s pace, or not moving at all. It has strong hands that can clamp onto a branch so tightly that it takes a serious effort to make them let go, so they have no problem just hanging around and not moving at all, sloth-like.

But what we didn’t understand about this is that the slow loris is only slow when we’re watching it. This is an interesting effect in science — the notion that a thing might change simply because it is being observed, which in turn means that any conclusions we draw from our observations may be false.

The thing is, the slow loris, and indeed all of the lorisids, move slowly when they feel there might be danger nearby, and in their eyes anything that moves is a potential danger. In their dense, leafy homes, moving slowly helps them blend in and avoid being spotted and eaten.

But put a loris in an environment where it feels safe, such as darkness, and it will move about normally, yet it wasn’t until we had the proper technology that we understood that. So we named it the slow loris, and the name has stuck. However, there is still one difference between a loris’s normal movement and what you would expect from a primate — the slow loris does not jump. At all. It has no future in basketball.

Slow loris species are either vulnerable or endangered, for two reasons. One is a reason that threatens many species in southeast Asia, namely habitat destruction from deforestation to clear land for human use or consumption. The second reason is the wildlife trade. Slow lorises are popular as exotic pets, but this is very bad for the species. In order for a slow loris to become a human pet, its teeth are usually removed so that it cannot inflict its toxic bite (which is painful but not fatal to humans). Many of these animals eventually die from infection or malnutrition after having their teeth removed.

A baby slow loris has its teeth removed with nail clippers before it becomes a pet. Yes, it’s just as bad as it looks. (Photo by International Animal Rescue)

People like slow lorises so much because they are docile, agreeable pets, but you must remember — the slow loris acts slow and docile only when it is feeling threatened. The cuter it looks, the more it fears for its life. Life as a pet is not good for a slow loris, but people all over the world own them. Since 2007 it has been completely illegal in every country in the world to import a slow loris, but exotic pet traders still find ways to smuggle them into other countries and sell them, often to people who don’t know that they are illegal.

To make a long story short, don’t ever buy a slow loris as a pet. Most die in captivity, and live unhappy existences up until they do, but so long as people are willing to pay for them because they are cute, there will be those who circumvent the law to take them from the wild and sell them.

23 – The Book of Primates

Time to monkey around. (Chimpanzee photo by Delphine Bruyere)

The order Primates (pronounced, oddly enough, pry-MAY-teez when you are talking about the order, and PRY-mayts when talking about individual members) is one of the largest, most diversified, and most successful orders in the mammal group. They have been around since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and are the kings and queens of mammalian life in the trees.

But before we begin, there is one thing we should get out of the way — yes, humans are primates. However any person wishes to justify it is, personally, fine by me, whether we evolved from more older primate forms or whether God influenced our evolution or whether God sprang us from the ether fully formed with traits that just happen to fit us perfectly into the primate category. That’s up to you, and as business goes it’s none of mine. But the fact of it is essentially unavoidable. We are primates.

There are some who believe that humans should not be placed on the tree of animal life, that we exist beyond it, but we are not some higher form of life. We emerged from the natural processes of the world like everything else. We are intelligent, we are industrious, and we have conquered the Earth’s many habitats like no animal before us has ever done. We have developed language, science, philosophy, and art. We are an amazing, wonderful species when we are at our best. Being a primate diminishes us not at all. Whether we are God’s chosen children or whether we have simply evolved and developed in such a manner as to rise for the most part above our animal instincts, we are still primates. This is where we fit. These creatures are our distant cousins.

That said, I will not be including an entry specifically about humans. The tale of our evolution, mostly known to us but still containing mysteries, is not meant for this record, nor is the long story of our history from our humble African roots to our establishment of civilization to our modern day intelligent adaptation to all the continents of Earth. I may one day tell that story, but the Book of Beasts is for our wild counterparts, and humans are a rather domesticated lot. Besides, we already get our share of mentions when it comes to our actions toward the animals of the world.

The wild primates used to be divided by their dominant features. They were the prosimians, which had features closer to older, more primitive primates, and the simians, which developed later. But today scientists, who do love to muck about with the order of things, instead classify primates by two different features. They are the curly-nosed primates and the dry-nosed primates. Many scientists still prefer the older grouping, which complicates things. Put it out of your mind, gentle reader, and think of monkeys.

Thinking of lemurs is also acceptable. (Red ruffed lemur photo by Hans Hillwaert)

Primates range from very small (the one-ounce Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur) to very large (the 450-pound eastern lowland gorilla), with all sorts of shapes, details, and behaviors in between, but there are a few things they all have in common.

With the exception of humans, as noted above, primates tend to live in tropical or sub-tropical regions where thick forests flourish. They are for the most part tree specialists, you see, and the more trees are around the happier a primate is.

While many animals and even some mammals have evolved to take advantage of trees, primates have truly taken trees to heart. Grasping hands, color vision, developed brains, the ability to walk on two legs, creative thinking — all of these things that helped humans become what we are today initially developed because they are great for living in trees.

Primates all have flexible shoulder joints that let them move their upper arms in many directions. Think of a dog or a cat — they can’t move their shoulders like we can because they did not evolve to move in trees, where such shoulder joints are highly advantageous.

All primates have five fingers and five toes, and have opposable thumbs used for grasping and manipulating objects. These features allow primates to easily climb and swing from branches, and they helped humans become the crafty, technological wizards we are. All primates also have sensitive toes and fingers to help with climbing and balance in the trees, whereas most other mammals have their toes and fingers protected somehow.

Primates have forward-facing eyes that allow accurate depth perception, critical for jumping through trees and also, coincidentally, for driving cars. This is why we don’t let horses drive the school bus. As a bonus, primates can (almost) all see in color.

All primates also tend to give birth to only one young at a time in most cases. As complex mammals, primates require a lot of attention from their mothers, and take longer to fully develop than most mammals, so it is better to have one offspring at a time. Primates are mostly social creatures as well, and typically have dominance hierarchies where one member of each group, typically the strongest, gets to make and enforce the rules over others. Sound familiar?

Last but certainly not least, all primates have large brains relative to their body sizes. A big brain allows for quick, easy processing of all the sensory information involved with swinging through branches high above the ground. This is why the feature developed, but as a side effect all primates are pretty smart cookies as far as animals go, and humans, of course, became the smartest cookies of all — though we did not develop as a distinct species until long after our ancient ancestors came down out of the trees and decided to give the ground a try. Fortunately for them it turned out that having that big brain, those grasping hands that could make tools, and that social cooperation, all of which developed in the trees, let them succeed on the ground as well.

There are a lot of different primates to cover, hundreds of them, so we will lump them together and be brief where we can. But there is a lot to know about these diverse and clever creatures, so let’s begin.

“About time, good fellow.” (Agile gibbon photo by Julie Langford)

21 – The Book of Pholidota

Off-the-scales awesome. (Photo by Dushy Ranetunge)

Throughout many of the forested and open tropical regions of the world, in Africa, India, China, and southeast Asia, you might catch a rustle of undergrowth or the scrape of claws in the night. This could be any number of things, but if you’re very lucky you might have found one of the eight living species in the order Pholidota, which means “scaly ones”.

These are the pangolins, a wonderful type of creature otherwise known as the scaly anteater. They are unique in the animal world as being the only mammal with hard keratin scales. These scales are rigid, tough to get through, and sharp around the edges, which when combined with the fact that the pangolin can roll itself into a ball makes it a tough nut to crack for any predator.

Pangolins have long scaled tails and claws for ripping apart termite nests or tree bark in the quest for tasty insects. Like other anteater-type animals (though the pangolin is not a true anteater), it has a long, flexible tongue for getting into tight spaces and pulling insects out. A pangolin’s tongue is typically more than a foot long, but is only 0.2 inches wide. To make matters even more interesting, pangolins don’t actually keep their tongues in their mouths when not using them — they actually keep their tongues sheathed all the way down their own throats and attached down near their stomachs. They don’t have any teeth, so they simply use their tongue to pull insects directly down into the digestive system.

Their claws are so long and so important for their livelihood that pangolins are hesitant to risk damaging them. When they walk about they actually curl their claws up against the pads of their feet and walk in an awkward manner on their knuckles. As you can imagine, this makes them far from the fastest animal around. But in addition to those marvelous defensive scales, a pangolin can also spray a foul-smelling acid like a skunk. The long and the short of it is that you can’t easily mess with a pangolin.

That hasn’t of course stopped humans from doing so. Pangolin numbers have decreased across most of their habitats due to deforestation and human hunting. Pangolins in Africa are often used for meat, but in Asia their scales are also in demand for use in that old species-killing standby, traditional Chinese medicine. Some pangolins are endangered, but there is still a black market trade for them. Studies of pangolins and their exact behaviour and populations in the wild are few due to their nocturnal nature.

The giant pangolin of western and central Africa is the largest of the eight species, weight up to 70 pounds with a body more than four feet long before you count the tail. But the best tail on any pangolin belongs to the tree pangolin, which lives in roughly the same areas as the giant pangolin.

The tree pangolin has a prehensile tail and does not rely exclusively on termite mounds for its meals. The tree pangolin, as the name implies, can climb a tree and hang from its tail to rip bark apart and get at the treats beneath. Using its tail for balance it can walk on two legs when it needs to, and there are even reports that it can stand on two legs, with its hind claws and tail holding on, while standing completely sideways on the side of a tree.

And this one almost got the job as stunt double for Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie. (Photo by verdammelt)

Pangolins are solitary creatures by nature and most of them are quite good at swimming. They are very distant relatives of the cats and dogs in Carnivora, but took an entirely different evolutionary path down their own branch of the evolutionary tree. This surprised researchers when it was first learned, for it was long assumed that pangolins were more closely related to armadillos or sloths, but this is simply not the case. It is only a matter of insect-eating species often evolving, entirely on their own, into similar forms that are best suited to the task.

Pangolin distribution.

20.3a – The Tapir

The beast with the shotgun nose. (Photo by Sepht)

Imagine a thick and humid forest in South America, where vegetation grows thick and small things live in profusion. Even the dogs that migrated to this continent grew small so that they could easily move around. But suddenly, snuffling through the jungle comes something bigger, something much bigger. Six hundred pounds of something like a cross between a pig and a small elephant rushes through the trees with a crash, and you wonder why on earth you’ve never heard of this before.

The tapir (pronounced TAY-per) is one of the largest land animals in the world that the average North American has probably never heard of. If asked to list large land animals, people would name the elephant, the rhino, the hippo, the bear, the giraffe, the lion, the tiger, but who would remember the tapir? There are four species of tapir, two in South America and two in southeast Asia. They are part of the same order as rhinos and horses, but they look nothing so much like the largest, strangest pig you’ve ever seen.

A tapir is about seven feet long and three feet tall with splayed, padded feet, each toe having its own hoof, capable of walking on mud without sinking. But the strangest thing you’d notice about a tapir — the strangest thing you’ve already noticed about it from the picture above — is its snout.

The snout on a tapir is long and flexible. It’s nothing compared to an elephant’s, but it’s the start of a similar idea. The tapir can move its snout in all directions and use it to reach branches and plants that would otherwise be just slightly out of reach.

And it makes them look just a little like Alf, the ’80s sitcom space alien. That’s not just me, right? (Mountain tapir photo by Elissa Berver)

A tapir’s teeth are also worth mentioning. The cutting teeth are set way out at the front of the long head, while the chewing teeth are much further back, and the two sets are separated by a gap. When combined with the fact that the entire snout is boneless, this gives the tapir a uniquely strange-looking skull.

Tapirs can smell and hear very well, but they have poor eyesight. They can run quickly and like to move around in the water much like a hippo. They have thick skin and only the biggest, strongest predators pose much of a threat to them.

Unfortunately that’s once again where we come in. Due to hunting and habitat loss, all four species of tapir are considered either endangered or threatened.

You might wonder how such a big animal came to live in both South America and southeast Asia, which are after all very far apart. Originally tapirs lived across almost the entire northern hemisphere, including North America, Asia, and Europe. But the northern tapirs in the old world all died out by about 8000 BC, leaving only those in southeast Asia; and in the new world, the tapirs of North America migrated south when the two American continents joined together three million years ago.

Tapirs are nocturnal creatures for the most part, but you must be careful if you ever meet one in the jungle at night. A tapir will typically avoid people by running or jumping in nearby water, but when frightened they have on rare occasions been known to maul humans with their jaws. And telling your buddies that you lost your arm in the Great Tapir War is not as credible as it sounds.

Tapir distribution.

20.2a – The Rhinoceros

One good horn deserves another. (Indian rhinoceros photo by Krish Dulal)

There are five living types of rhinoceros, called rhino for short, left in the world today, and these strange, hulking, armored behemoths represent a living look into the distant past.

Once upon a time, millions of years ago in the period between the fall of the dinosaurs and the rise of humans, enormous mammals inherited the earth. With all of the planet’s resources at their disposal and all of the dinosaurs extinct, mammals took the opportunity to evolve into ever-larger, stronger forms, becoming in a way the mammal equivalent of the great dinosaurs themselves. These enormous animals are called megafauna, and you could once find them everywhere in all different types.

Humanity for a large part put an end to that, killing off most of the megafauna while we were still a young species living in the last ice age, for after all when you want meat and fur to survive, the most efficient way to get them is to kill the biggest animals around.

But some types of those enormous animals still live today, though all of the very biggest ones are gone from the land. The rhinoceros is one of those surviving animals.

Today you will find two types of rhino that live in Africa, and these are easy to distinguish because they have two horns on the front of their face. There are also three Asian rhinos, and these have only one horn (except for one of them, which is an oddball).

Rhinos are big, and they are tough. All of the living species can weigh more than a tonne, and they are covered with a thick, highly-structured skin that protects them from harm. A rhino’s skin can be as many as two inches thick.

The two most noticeable things about a rhino other than its size are its horns and the fact that it has no knees—none of the rhinos do. They simply walk with their legs completely straight, and can only bend them at the shoulder and hip joints.

The horn is made of keratin, the same as a deer’s antlers or a human’s fingernails or a horse’s hoof. It is not a true horn because it has no bony core, but neither is it an antler, because it doesn’t fall off. We call it a horn to make things simple. Rhinos have long been killed by humans, both legally and illegally, to obtain these horns. Entire rhinoceros groups have been left dead to rot while the horns alone are carted away by poachers. This is because the horns are used in illegal and dubious medicines in parts of the world, or also sometimes as expensive and unsavory decorations. We are not a fun species to live with on this world.

The two African rhinos are the white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros. The funny thing about them is that they are neither white nor black, but are both in fact grey. There is very little colour difference between the two. We named the black rhino because we wanted to distinguish it from the white rhino, but no one knows why we named the white rhino. It’s just one of those things.

The white rhinoceros, versus … (Photo by Ikiwaner)

… the black rhinoceros. Notice the stark difference in colours? No, me neither. (Photo by Staycoolandbegood)

The black rhino was once the most numerous rhino in the world, with several hundred thousand of them living in Africa only a hundred years ago. By the 1960s that number had dropped to 70,000, and by 1995 it had dropped as low as 2400, simply because humans wouldn’t stop killing them. Some of its subspecies are extinct or nearly so, but overall their numbers have since recovered a little, to around 4200.

In Asia you will find the Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhinoceros, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the species, and also the hairiest, but only about 250 of them are still alive. It is the most ancient type of rhino still alive today, and in its hairier body we might see echoes of the wooly rhino that once roamed Asia and Europe before the coming of man. The Sumatran rhino is the oddball I mentioned earlier, for unlike the other Asian rhinos it has two horns. It also has a prehensile lip, which is wonderful. This means it can extend and fully control its lip to grasp objects

The Sumatran rhinoceros is just plain weird. (Photo by Charles W. Hardin)

But the Sumatran rhino is not the rarest, unfortunately. There are only about 60 Javan rhinos left in the world, making it one of the rarest mammals anywhere. They live in dense jungle where it is difficult to enforce laws to protect them against poachers. Soon, perhaps, the poachers will kill the last one and that will be the end of their work.

Rhinos have very little in the way of protection against human weapons, but they are excellent at fending off natural predators, which is part of why they have survived so long. With their thick skin protecting them, a rhino can charge a predator and attack with its great horn, and some rhinos can run as fast as 30 miles per hour. Why can’t they do that with poachers, you might ask? In most cases, a poacher will simply kill a rhino when it stops to get a drink from a water source.

Rhinos eat grass and vegetation, and most of the species are solitary except for mothers and their children. The white rhino is the exception, as this great beast lives in small herds of a dozen or so animals. A rhinoceros herd is called a crash, and I think that’s delightful.

Rhinoceros distribution.

20.1c – The Wild Ass

Much more trouble than a tame ass, believe you me. This is a kiang. (Photo by Bodina)

All right. Let’s get the snickering out of the way first. Go ahead, I don’t mind. All done, then? Right.

While “ass” has been used as a term to mean the backside for about 150 years now, it was a word that referred to an animal for a long, long time before that. Science was here first, and it never backs down from an official name just because other people have named a body part after it.

A domesticated ass is called a donkey, but there are three species of wild asses still alive in the world today. The African wild ass is the ancestor of the donkey, and is critically endangered. The onager is an endangered wild ass that is slightly larger than a donkey and lives in central Asia. The kiang is the largest of the asses, and lives in Tibet and western China — it is the only one that is not in danger of extinction.

The kiang and the onager are both closely related, and can cross-breed with each other and also with horses and donkeys, but the offspring are sterile like mules, which means that they can’t have any children of their own. This is an indication of animals that are very closely related but have drifted far enough apart to be different species now.

Wild asses are smaller than horses and only form temporary herds of young males or of females and their young. Older males are usually always found alone, and the others are found alone some of the time. As such they are not as social nor quite as intelligent as horses — though they do keep in contact with each other even while alone, using their loud braying voices to let other asses know where they are.

These animals are the hardiest survivors of the equid family, capable of living in very dry environments. They can break down scrubby desert vegetation and extract the maximum amount of moisture from it in their digestive systems, and a wild ass’s big ears help it keep cool by circulating more blood close to the air.

Wild asses are fast runners, though not quite as fast as a horse, but their first instinct isn’t usually to run away from danger, which might be part of why they don’t form tight-knit herds. A wild ass will instead investigate anything out of the ordinary, and won’t hesitate to attack a threat with its powerful biting jaws or with kicks from its strong hind legs. This is why you don’t want to make a donkey angry, and donkeys are a lot nicer than their wild counterparts.

“Don’t make assumptions about my temper. Because you know what they say. When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. Mostly me, I guess.” (African wild ass photo by päts)

Even though there are lots of donkeys and burros in the world, which are technically the same species as the African wild ass, the wild version is critically endangered. They have been captured for domestication and hunted as food for thousands of years, and must compete for grazing with domesticated animals in northeastern Africa. Recent protected areas have been created for these wild asses, and it may be that they will still recover.