Tiny Tarsier Subspecies Discovered
by Stephen Luntz
Photo credit: Plerzelwupp. The Philippine tarsier is a more diverse species than previously recognised
The Philippine tarsier has three subspecies, DNA testing reveals. Unfortunately, a newly identified population is threatened by mining.
Tarsiers are small primates that once lived across Asia and Europe, but are now restricted to Indonesia and the Philippines. The Philippine tarsier, Carlito syrichta, has a genus to itself but there has been confusion about the relationships between different subspecies, or even if genuinely distinct populations exist.
“The tarsier is famous for not eating any vegetable material of any kind,” says Dr Rafe Brown of the University of Kansas “They eat insects, small snakes, lizards, small mammals and birds. They communicate with ultrasonic calls outside the range of human hearing. The tarsier is so cool!”
So Brown and colleagues compared DNA samples from 66 tarsiers across their territory of southern Philippines. Their findings were published in PLoS ONE, and reveal a subspecies living on the island of Dinagat and north-east Mindanao. Since the population has been identified through its genetics, it has not yet been given a name, or a description of physical differences from other C syrichta. However, Filipino biologist Dioscoro Rabor, proposed the existence of a subspecies in the area in the 1970s, without achieving widespread acceptance.
Looking a little like a furry and better fed Gollum, tarsiers’ charisma could be the only thing capable of stopping the destruction of their habitat, of which only 4-8% remains. As the only place besides Madagascar designated both a global biodiversity hotspot and a Megadiverse nation such protection matters to thousands of obscure species as well as the ones that draw attention. The new subspecies is particularly in need of help, as its habitat is limited and the area lacks low-elevation protected locations. Moreover, mining companies are moving into the habitat with intensive operations.
The authors note that there is still a lot to be learned about nocturnal rainforest species. “Between the 1975 and 1999 nocturnal primate species diversity grew worldwide by 2.85-fold increase, and has since climbed by an additional 1.69-fold increase” they write.
Aside from the need for programs to find endangered species before they are gone, the authors suggest the new tarsier, likely to prove a favorite with tourists, “be regarded as tantamount to the conservation importance of celebrated Philippine flagship species (e.g., Philippine eagle, tamaraw, golden-spotted monitor lizard).” However, there is a price to be paid for the species’ popularity. “On Bohol, where they are a big part of the tourist economy, literally thousands of animals are taken out of the wild, essentially harassed by tourists, and die in captivity due to the stress and inability of their captors to feed them an appropriate diet of live small animals,” says Brown. “Tarsiers must eat an enormous amount every night to fuel their high metabolism.