Tarsiers! Cool Facts About These Wonderfully Weird Primates

Tarsier monkey.
Their huge eyes may be the most noticeable feature, but there's a lot of other things that make the tarsier a stand-out among primates. (Photo: Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova).

A stare like no other animal, super long fingers, velvety soft fur, the ability to catch insects or even birds with a well-timed pounce -- tarsiers are such extraordinary creatures! Here are a few things that make the tarsier an absolutely amazing animal.


Those Big Eyes

The most noticeable thing about tarsiers are their eyes. They have the largest eyes relative to body size of any mammal. Each eyeball is around 16 millimeters in diameter, which is as large as the tarsier’s entire brain, but every last millimeter is necessary since the tarsier is a nocturnal species. The eyes are so large, they can’t rotate them, so they have a neck that do the work instead. Tarsiers can rotate their necks a full 180 degrees in either direction, just like owls, like this:

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They use this ability to wait silently for prey to approach, rather than moving around to hunt.

Uniquely Carnivorous

Tarsiers are the only entirely carnivorous primate. While the specific diet varies with the species, they all have one thing in common: they don’t eat plant matter of any kind. They feast on insects, reptiles like lizards and snakes, frogs, birds and even bats. While small and cute, they’re serious ambush predators, waiting silently for prey to approach nearby — and can even snag birds and bats right out of the air.

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Extra Long Fingers, Feet, and Tail

Tarsiers get their name from their extraordinarily elongated tarsus bones in their feet. While the tarsier’s head and body are around 4-6 inches in length, their hind legs and feet are twice as long. They also have a long, usually hairless tail that adds an extra 7.8-9.8 inches. Their fingers are extra long to help grasp tree branches, and their third finger is as long as their entire upper arm. All of this unique anatomy allows tarsiers to be vertical clingers and climbers — and jumpers. They can jump 40 times their body length, flying over 16 feet in a single leap.

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Tarsiers aren't jumping around at the top of the tree canopy as you might expect. Instead, they are typically found hanging out between 3 and 6.5 feet off the ground. Still, they need plenty of tree cover, especially for sleeping, which they do adorably:


Tarsier Types and Habitats

There are three types of tarsier: eastern tarsiers, western tarsiers and Philippine tarsiers. Within these, there are about 18 species (scientists are always debating the number of species and which are subspecies, and so on). They are some of the oldest primates on the planet, dating back about 40 million years with fossil records showing them once at home all over the world including North America and Europe.

They are now confined to a few places in Asia, and they are rapidly disappearing from their remaining habitats. All of the species are vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and will undoubtedly go extinct without significant conservation efforts to preserve their habitats. The Siau Island Tarsier, for example, is listed as one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world.

The specific needs for tarsiers in both habitat and prey make captive breeding programs essentially impossible, and only around 50 percent of tarsiers put in captivity are able to survive. Habitat conservation is their only hope.

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