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What are Tarsiers?

By Wanda Albano
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Tarsiers (genus Tarsius) are strange-looking prosimian primates generally found in Southeast Asia (Philippines, Borneo, and Indonesia). They are characterized by their small bodies, thin fingers, and a pair of very large eyes. Tarsiers have very sharp teeth and a long tail, and can range in height from 3-6 inches (7.6 to 15.2 cm) with tails from 5-11 inches (12.7-28 cm). Their fur can be brown or grey in color. They can weigh up to 6 ounces (170 g), and males grow to be larger than females.

The name tarsier is derived from the unique makeup of their ankles, specifically their ankle bones, which are very long. This trait allows them to absorb shock easily, especially when they hop around from treetop to treetop, which is where they make their homes. It is said that their movements resemble that of frogs.

Tarsiers are nocturnal animals. Strangely, however, tarsiers do not have a light-reflecting area in their eyes (tapetum lucidum), which is almost de riguer for most creatures of the night. Despite this, tarsiers are known to have excellent night vision and are very good hunters. Their disproportionately big ears can also seek out and turn to the direction of sound, while their heads can move around a 180 degree arc (like an owl). A Tarsier's average diet mainly consists of live insects.

While there is a debate on the exact number of tarsier species, most zoologists accept eight: Horsfield's tarsier (Tarsius bancanus), Dian's tarsier (Tarsius bancanus), Peleng tarsier (Tarsius pelengensis), Sangihe tarsier (Tarsius pumilus), pygmy tarsier (Tarsius sangirensis), spectral tarsier (Tarsius spectrum), Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta), and Lariang tarsier (Tarsius lariang). Tarsiers are commonly thought to be some of the smallest primates in the world.

Most species of tarsiers are endangered. While data on this animal is limited, experts estimate that there is an ongoing threat to tarsiers' existence, and that their numbers are still falling. They are a protected species in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, tarsiers do not do well in captivity and plans to breed them in labs or other artificial environments have not worked. They feel extreme stress when placed in cages, and will injure themselves - sometimes to the point of death - when placed in a cage.

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