NORMAN — An international team of biologists doing genetic research on some of the world’s smallest primates made a surprising discovery.
“What was shocking was we uncovered a completely distinctive population not on anyone’s radar,” said Cameron Siler, of the University of Oklahoma. “It was really exciting and really shocking.”
The team, headed by Rafe Brown with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, discovered a new genetic lineage of the Philippine tarsier.
Tarsiers have huge eyes, a short body and especially long ankle bones or tarsals — for which they are named — that allow them to leap from tree to tree.
Today they are found only on islands in Southeast Asia.
“They’re really neat tiny, tiny primates,” said Siler, assistant biology professor at OU and assistant curator at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
Fully grown, they weigh only about 3 to 6 ounces, making them one of the smallest primates, he said.
“They can be vicious if you try to handle them,” Siler said.
“It’s so hard to do field work to sample the population without harming them.”
But researchers — wearing heavy gloves — needed to handle them to collect ear clips for DNA samples, he said.
“Like all primates, they can be stressed pretty easily, too,” Siler said.
That’s why the team used a minimum number of people and handled the tarsiers for a minimum amount of time before releasing them, he said.
Working with the Philippine government’s Biodiversity Management Bureau, the biologists collected the DNA to gain information that could help define priorities for tarsier conservation efforts.
Genetic studies never had been done on tarsiers, Siler said. The project was “an enormous collaboration” that spanned more than four years.
The Philippine government does a great job of designating protected areas where other lineages of tarsiers live, but no wildlife sanctuary exists in the area where the newly discovered Dinagat-Caraga tarsier was found, he said.
They were found only on the small island of Dinagat and the northeast corner of the larger island of Mindanao to the south. The area is threatened by mining activities, Siler said.
Project leader Brown said the discovery identifies an important new example of a “conservation flagship species” that has the potential to increase public awareness of the Philippines’ astounding resident biodiversity and, if protected by the Philippine government, extend protection “like an umbrella” to the many species of unique birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants and invertebrates that share its rainforest home.
The small leaping primates are found only on various islands of Southeast Asia. The large goggling eyes are the animal’s most striking feature. They have especially long ankle bones (tarsals, hence the name tarsier), a short body and a round head that can be rotated 180 degrees.
Tarsiers are the only entirely carnivorous primates, preying on insects, lizards and snakes. Clinging upright to trees, they press the tail against the trunk for support. Their grip is aided by the tips of their digits, which are expanded into disk-like adhesive pads. Tarsiers move through the forest by launching themselves from trunk to trunk propelled by their greatly elongated hind limbs.
Adults live in monogamous pairs and keep in contact vocally during the night, defending territory against other pairs using extremely high-pitched calls. Single young are born in a fairly well-developed state, furred and with eyes open, after a gestation of perhaps six months.
— Encyclopedia Britannica