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Tarsiers: Strange and Threatened Primates of Southeast Asia

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A Philippine tarsier in a sanctuary

A Philippine tarsier in a sanctuary

Fascinating and Unusual Primates

Tarsiers are strange primates with huge eyes that look too big for their face. Each eye is approximately the size of the tarsier’s brain. The animal's thin and elongated fingers and toes have large adhesive pads at their tips, making them look swollen. Tarsiers also have very long and powerful hind legs that are folded up when they aren’t being used. Their strange appearance often reminds people of Yoda, the Jedi master in the Star Wars movies.

In the wild, tarsiers live only on the islands of Southeast Asia. They are generally nocturnal, although they may be active at dawn and dusk as well. They make their home in trees or sometimes in shrubs. Here they climb and leap with ease. They catch most of their food—insects and other small animals—in the trees. They also sleep, mate, and have their babies in the trees.

There is still a lot that is unknown about the natural life of a tarsier. Unfortunately, the populations of many species of the animal are in trouble. These species need our help in order to survive.

Biological Classification of Tarsiers

Tarsiers are our distant relatives. Like us, they belong to the order Primates and the suborder Haplorhini. They belong to the infraorder Tarsiiformes, while humans belong to the infraorder Simiiformes. Monkeys and apes are classified in the same infraorder as us. This reflects their greater similarity to humans with respect to their body structure and other factors.

It should be noted that alternate classification systems exist. There is still some disagreement about how the different types of primates should be classified. It seems to be agreed that although tarsiers are primates, they are not as closely related to us as monkeys and apes are.

According to the latest classification scheme, three groups of tarsiers exist: the western tarsier (genus Cephalopachus), the eastern tarsier (genus Tarsius) and the Philippine tarsier (genus Carlito). Each genus contains different species and subspecies.

A tarsier's soft fur is grey or brown and may have buff or reddish patches. Fur color isn’t a reliable way to distinguish the species, though. They differ in features such as body size, size of their eyes, limb proportions, and vocalizations. Another difference is the length of the tail tuft. A tarsier has a long tail that is hairless except for a tuft at the end.

In May 2017, scientists announced that they had discovered two new species of tarsiers on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Before this discovery, there were often said to be eighteen species of tarsiers in existence. There is some disagreement about how the animals should be classified, however.

Map of Southeast Asia and its islands

Map of Southeast Asia and its islands

Range and Habitat of the Animals

Tarsiers are found in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which can all be seen in the map above. The animals live in forests and treed areas of various types. They also inhabit areas with shrubs or bamboo plants. They are sometimes seen in grasslands but seem to use these areas only to travel from one habitat to another.

The primates are often found clinging to a trunk or branch only around six feet above the ground. They sometimes move higher in the trees or leave a tree and come to the ground. They move through the trees mainly by climbing and leaping. They walk on all four legs but have been observed hopping on their hind legs.

Physical Features of Tarsiers

Small Size

Tarsiers are small animals. Although they are sometimes said to be the world’s smallest primate, that honor actually goes to the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur of Madagascar. This mouse lemur has an average weight of 1.1 ounces and a head plus body length of 3.6 inches. The pygmy tarsier is also a tiny primate but is slightly bigger that the mouse lemur. It weighs about 2 ounces and has a head plus body length of about 3.8 inches. The bigger tarsiers may reach around 5.2 inches in length (not counting the tail) and about 5.4 ounces in weight.

Large Eyes

The tarsier has the largest eyes relative to its body size of any mammal. In some types, the eyes are not only large but also bulging. The eyes can’t rotate, but the animal can turn its head almost 180 degrees in each direction. This feature gives it a 360 degree view of the world and enables it to leap backwards.

Hands and Feet

The third finger is the largest of the digits in the hand. Most of the tarsier's digits have nails, but there are grooming claws on the second and third toes.

The name “tarsier” comes from the elongated tarsal bones in the animal’s feet. These bones are located behind the toes. The big tarsal bones, the long hind legs, which are about twice as long as the animal's head and body, and the strong leg muscles make the tarsier a very good leaper.

Night Vision Facts

Tarsiers need their large eyes to help them see in the dark. Unlike the eyes of many other nocturnal animals, tarsier eyes lack a tapetum lucidum. The tapetum lucidum (or simply the tapetum) is a light-reflecting layer behind the retina at the back of the eyeball. The retina is the part of the eye that detects light.

When light strikes the retina of an animal with a tapetum, some of the light is absorbed. Some passes through the retina and hits the tapetum, however. It’s then reflected back to the retina, which absorbs some of the reflected light. The tapetum therefore gives the retina two chances to absorb light rays, helping the animal see better in the dark. Tarsiers need their large eyes to see at night since they don’t have a tapetum lucidum to help their vision.

The Philippine tarsier is said to have the largest eyes in proportion to its body size of any animal on the planet. The giant squid (genus Architeuthis) or perhaps the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has the largest eyes in the world with respect to the physical size of the eye.

Finding Food and Diet of a Tarsier

The independent movement of a tarsier's ears helps the animal to locate its prey. Its long hind legs provide a powerful thrust for its leaps. Tarsiers often leap onto the prey to catch it. The Philippine tarsier has been observed catching insects in the air, using its hands as a cage.

The tarsier is the only primate that is entirely carnivorous. Its diet consists mainly of insects, such as crickets, beetles, and termites, but it will also eat small frogs, lizards, crabs, snakes, birds, and even small bats and fish. It eats live prey and often keeps its eyes closed as it chews.

Life and Behavior

Most tarsiers seem to be social animals, but the degree of closeness and social interaction varies according to the species. Although the animals generally live in groups, the space between the group members during their various activities varies. The most social animals snuggle together, groom each other, and play with each other. They may also share food.

The animals sleep in tangled vegetation or in tree cavities. They sleep alone or with one or more companions, depending on the species. The Philippine tarsier is considered to be a solitary animal and sleeps on its own, though it's sometimes seen near other members of its species when it's awake.

Tarsiers are vocal animals and produce a wide variety of sounds. Some male-female pairs sing sunrise duets together before they go to sleep. Researchers have found that the spectral tarsier of Indonesia makes 15 different sounds in addition to the morning duet. These sounds include a variety of alarm calls, contact sounds, and food calls. Tarsiers have an excellent ability to hear and can detect sounds with a very high pitch.

Two animals in Bohol in the Philippines

Two animals in Bohol in the Philippines

Territories of the Animals

Tarsiers are territorial. They patrol their territory and advertise it with scent marking and vocalizations. The animals have scent glands on their lips and abdomens. Urine, feces, and fluids from their reproductive tracts also contain smelly chemicals that serve to mark a territory or communicate with other animals in the same group. Tarsiers may group together to chase potential invaders away.

During the day, a tarsier frequently furls its ears (rolls or folds them up) and then unfurls them. The animal indicates fear by keeping its ears furled. It shows aggression by crouching with an open mouth and lunging or by standing on two legs.

Reproduction and Lifespan

Mating behavior varies. Some species appear to be monogamous, with one male mating with one female. In other species, a male is believed to mate with several females.

Gestation lasts five or six months. Only one baby is generally born per pregnancy. The babies are large at birth and weigh 20% to 33% of the adult's weight. Their eyes are open, and their fur has developed. The youngsters are able to climb almost immediately after they are born. Despite this fact, the mother often carries her baby around in her mouth.

The young tarsier develops rapidly. Weaning takes place when the baby is about eighty days old. In at least some species, other females help the mother to take care of the baby.

The lifespan of the different tarsier species is uncertain. In the wild, some individuals are believed to live for twenty years or more. The lifespan is generally much shorter in captivity. This is the opposite trend to that seen in many other animals. Generally, when an animal is protected in captivity, it lives longer than it does in the wild.

IUCN Red List Categories

LC: Least Concern

NT: Near Threatened

VU: Vulnerable

EN: Endangered

CR: Critically Endangered

EW: Extinct in the Wild

EX: Extinct

Animals classified in the Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered category are said to be threatened.

Population Status of Tarsiers

Predators of tarsiers include owls, tree snakes, monitor lizards, civets, and feral cats. Some humans hunt the animals for food. Habitat destruction for agriculture and human settlement is the biggest threat to their survival, as it is for so many endangered animals.

Tarsiers sometimes travel through agricultural areas. Here farmers may kill the animals, unaware that they aren't eating the crops but are instead eating the insect pests feeding on the crops. Political unrest has destroyed some suitable habitats for the animals. Another problem is that the animals are captured for the pet trade. They are kept in cages in some places so that tourists can get a good view of them.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) maintains a "Red List" that identifies the population status of different species. The tarsier species surveyed by the IUCN have been classified in the Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered categories of the Red List.

Tarsius syrichta or Carlita syrichta  (the Philippine tarsier)

Tarsius syrichta or Carlita syrichta (the Philippine tarsier)

Facts About the Tarsier Foundation

In general, tarsiers don't do well in captivity and have a high death rate. They sometimes bang their heads against the bars of their enclosure repeatedly, injuring themselves. Some people keep captive tarsiers in large and natural habitats, however. These people have been more successful in breeding the animals and in keeping them relatively happy.

The Philippine Tarsier Foundation is one organization that is trying to keep the animals physically and mentally healthy and to breed them. The organization also aims to learn more about the animal's behavior, conserve the habitat of the wild animals, and educate the public.

Apart from the western tarsier, all tarsiers used to be classified in the genus Tarsius. Today the Philippine tarsier is often placed in the genus Carlito. Some sources still retain the original genus name. The word "Carlito" refers to Carlito Pizarras. It honors his efforts to protect tarsiers and his successful breeding of captive animals. Pizarras is associated with the Tarsier Foundation. He's often known by the name of Nong Lito and is sometimes called "The Tarsier Man" because of his conservation efforts.

Potential Conservation Problems

One writer has been to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation's facility. I summarize his observations and report below. He shares the original version in the third reference at the end of this article. His article discusses the plight of tarsiers and a consideration of what “conservation” really means.

The animals in the Tarsier Foundation's habitat have a large area to explore. This means that there is no assurance that a visitor will see the animals, but the primates lead a relatively natural life. The population is slowly increasing in the habitat, at least at the time when the report was created.

The animals in a nearby and so-called conservation organization's habitat are apparently more restricted in their movement. They have small trees to climb. Unfortunately, the trees are stripped of leaves so that it’s easier to see and photograph the animals. People crowd around each tree that contains tarsiers and place their camera lenses very close to the animals in order to take photos. Both of these situations are likely very stressful for the animals, as would be the light coming from the use of camera flashes.

Saving Tarsiers

Conservation organizations and people committed to tarsier protection are badly needed in order to save the wild populations of the animal. I think that it's very important that people take into account the animal's abilities and needs during a conservation project. The animals are more important than the people who come to see them.

Tarsiers are fascinating primates and a valuable contribution to the fauna of the world. There is probably a lot more to learn about them. I hope the situation improves for those groups and individuals that need help. I also hope that if they are studied by scientists or observed by the public, their welfare is prioritized.


  • Information about the tarsier from the National Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin - Madison
  • Philippine tarsier facts from The Tarsius Project
  • Information about Carlito Pizarras and his efforts to save tarsiers from Motherboard (A Vice Media Group site)
  • Status of Carlito syrichta from the IUCN Red List
  • Newly-discovered species looks like Yoda from Star Wars from Mongabay

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 14, 2016:

Thank you very much for the comment, Alun. I hope that tarsiers survive. I think that they are fascinating animals.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on July 14, 2016:

Thanks Linda for this informative, comprehensive and well presented article about tarsiers. Although I have heard of tarsiers before and seen them in wildlife documentaries, I have sadly never seen one in real life, and I certainly didn't know there were so many species. One hopes that all can be conserved but I would imagine in the parts of the world where they live, those in very restricted habitats may have a poor outlook. I hope not. Alun

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2011:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, natures47friend.

natures47friend from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand. on November 25, 2011:

Great hub. Greenpeace would love it!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 25, 2011:

Thanks a lot for the comment, Martie! I appreciate your visit very much.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 25, 2011:

An excellent, well-written and informative hub about the Tarsier. I enjoyed the read tremendously. Thanks, Alicia!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 25, 2011:

Hi, Nell. Yes, I got both your comments. Thank you very much for the visit and the vote! I agree with you - it is a shame that animals like tarsiers are in trouble

Nell Rose from England on November 25, 2011:

Hi, not sure if you got my comment? this is a really interesting hub, I love them they are so cute! and the fact that they sing to each other! rated up! cheers nell

Nell Rose from England on November 25, 2011:

Hi, these are definitely cute! gorgeous little creatures, and they sing to each other! such a shame that we have to protect animals, everybody should respect and protect them, well detailed, voted up! cheers nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 23, 2011:

Thank you very much for the visit, the comment and the vote, Eddy. I hope that you have a good day too!

Eiddwen from Wales on November 23, 2011:

I thororughly enjoyed this hub. i love anything to do with nature/wildlife etc,so I can assure you that this one was a treat;so an up up and away.

I bookmark into my 'Animals and nature' slot and thank you for sharing.

Takecare and enjoy your day.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2011:

Thank you so much for the new comment, HikeGuy! Animals and nature are two of my favorite topics to write about.

Bryce from Northern California Coast on November 22, 2011:

That makes sense -- closing the eyes is a natural way to protect them. I hope to see more amazing work from you. (No pressure!) This is one of my favorite hubs.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 22, 2011:

Thanks a lot for the comment and the votes, Peggy! I appreciate your visit.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 22, 2011:

Thank you for this wonderful hub about the tarsiers. I learned much from reading your hub and watching the videos. Up, useful and interesting votes!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Thank you very much, HikeGuy. It's nice to meet you and plinka! Like you, I think that tarsiers are amazing. It is interesting to see a tarsier close its eyes while eating. It's thought that tarsiers close their eyes when they're eating living prey to avoid injury.

Bryce from Northern California Coast on November 21, 2011:

Wonderful! Such a detailed and appreciative introduction to these amazing animals. That's fascinating about their eyes. Terrific detail that they close their eyes to eat -- as though savoring. I'm glad Plinka shared this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Thanks a lot for the visit and the comment, AllSuretyBonds!

AllSuretyBonds on November 21, 2011:

These little guys are different looking but they are still so adorable! I learned something new today. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Thank you, writer20! Tarsiers are strange animals, but I think that they are fascinating.

Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on November 21, 2011:

I think hes a cutey also your hub is very good.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Thank you for your comment and your insight, Peter. I'm sad to hear that Philippine tarsiers are being treated badly.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Hi, drbj. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think tarsiers qualify as weird animals! I'm looking forward to reading your aye-aye hub.

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on November 21, 2011:

Great write up. Thank you. Sadly exploited by the corrupt and ignorant in the Philippines still.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 21, 2011:

The tarsiers are different looking - no question about that. I once planned on doing a hub about them myself in my weird animal series but ended up instead doing one about the aye-aye which is also somewhat strange looking: "Weird Animals - the Aye-Aye."

This was excellent research, alicia, presented in a very interesting manner. Thank you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Hi, carrie. Probably many people would think that tarsiers are ugly and cute at the same time. I think that they're cute! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 21, 2011:

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, plinka! Yes, it's good to know which animals are endangered. Unfortunately human activities are increasing the number of threatened animal populations.

carriethomson from United Kingdom on November 21, 2011:

hey that's an interesting creature!! cannote decide if its ugly or its cute!! i guess its ugly but adorable. and oh my god they are so small!! palm size almost


plinka from Budapest, Hungary on November 21, 2011:

It's nice to draw attention to endangered species. Very good hub! Voted up and shared!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 20, 2011:

Hi, Baileybear. Yes, tarsiers do look rather odd! They're interesting creatures too. Thanks for commenting.

Baileybear on November 20, 2011:

they look like gremlins - rather odd looking creature