These are trifles, though. The tarsier (of which there are believed to be around 10 species) is surely one of the most remarkable primates around, with its humongous eyes and long padded fingers and general oh-criminy-did-I-leave-the-oven-on appearance. It can rotate its head like an owl. It speaks in ultrasound. It’s the only primate to feed exclusively on meat. And it’s the only primate to jump right into my heart.
So let’s talk about those eyeballs first, shall we? They’re some of the biggest eyes relative to body size in the animal kingdom, and for good reason: The tarsier is a nocturnal hunter. But we primates, we’re not too good at seeing at night. That’s because almost all primates lack the tapetum lucidum, a reflective tissue in the eyes that greatly enhances night vision for nocturnal creatures. Shine a flashlight in a raccoon’s eyes, for instance, and that evil glow you get back is the tapetum lucidum. You and me, we don’t have this. That’s why our night vision kinda sucks.
And boy did they get big. So big, in fact, that the tarsier can’t move them around. But for that it has a solution: It can swivel its noodle almost 360 degrees, Exorcist-style. And with giant eyes and a pivoting noggin, the tarsier is essentially the owl of the rainforest. Two unrelated species arriving at adaptations independently like this is known as convergent evolution—think bats and birds both evolving to fly, one with feathers and the other with a stretchy membrane.
And like an owl, the tarsier is a master nighttime hunter, a menace to creatures like insects and lizards that are under the mistaken impression that the darkness will save them. To target its prey, it uses both its huge eyes and its individually pivoting ears. (Interestingly, around 20 percent of humans can wiggle their ears a little bit because long ago our ancestors could pivot them like tarsiers and cats. If you can do it, that doesn’t mean you’re less evolved. It just means you’re a freak. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) And it can leap perhaps as far as 15 feet—not too shabby for a creature that would fit in the palm of your hand—thanks to the longest legs relative to body size among primates. Tarsiers are in fact named after their highly elongated tarsus, or the group of bones that make up your ankle and upper foot.
Also a bit weird for a primate is that some tarsier species don’t seem to be social. Well, all sexually reproducing animals have to be social to some degree so they can get together to mate, so it’d be more accurate to say that they aren’t particularly gregarious, living instead a solitary life. But they have a clever way to find each other and initiate sexy time, all while avoiding detection by their own predators: They can belt out tunes that are far too high-pitched for other creatures to pick up.
So we then should ask: If a tarsier screams in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Trouble for the Tarsiers Sadly, this remarkable strategy does them little good against their greatest enemy: us. Tarsiers are in serious trouble. Deforestation, overhunting, presticides, you name it. The crummy things we’re doing to this planet are hitting the tarsiers hard.
Shekelle has spent years campaigning for the tarsier, making the rounds in its habitats in Southeast Asia to educate locals on conservation. Perhaps the most ironic problem seems to be its villainization as an agricultural pest. “So one of the things that I’ve done is try to work with [farmers] and explain: No no, tarsiers are actually interesting. They’re the only primate that doesn’t eat any plant matter, none at all,” said Shekelle. “If you see them in your crops, they’re eating insects that eat the leaves on your crops, so they’re actually good.”
His advice isn’t always heeded, though. “One very memorable time, after we did this and the people were like, ‘Yeah, yeah that’s very interesting,’ we came back the next day and the guy had cut down his own fruit tree that had the tarsier nest in it. Clearly he didn’t believe a word that we said.”
Yet even further irony comes from the tarsier’s growing status as a flagship species—a particularly charismatic creature that helps raise awareness for a habitat’s conservation. Typically this is something bigger, like an elephant or orangutan, but Shekelle notes that tarsiers “are really photogenic, they’re really charismatic, people are attracted to them, you’re writing a story about them. So they do work well.”
The problem with this increased awareness of the tarsier is that chuckleheaded tourists will visit sanctuaries and poke and prod the poor things as they rest on branches. Or, apparently unaware of the invention of the zoom lens, they’ll get in really close for pictures. All of this adds up to extreme stress for the creatures, at times leading to death.
But if we’re going to save the tarsier, such exposure as a threatened species is indispensable. Local sanctuaries just have to get their act together. So here’s to hoping that conservationists like Shekelle can turn things around for the most remarkable primate on Earth. It’s what Yoda would have wanted.
source: wired.com By Matt Simon