Be proud, dearest Senior Citizen, of the Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta) found in the islands of Bohol, Leyte, Samar and Mindanao.
Definitely, one wonderful memory of any Bohol trip is to see our very own Philippine tarsier. We all know that it is the cute primate with very big eyes of which we love to take videos and pictures. But do we really know what they are and what makes them unique and vulnerable to changes in their habitat? Are those in captivity affected by our presence as tourists?
Oh, what a long tail you have, Philippine Tarsier!
Here are 35 important facts about our precious animal, the Philippine tarsier, according to Wikipedia page “Philippine tarsier”1:
- It is the only member of the genus Carlito, of the Syrichta species, a tarsier2 endemic to the Philippines. It is a shy primate3 that leads a mostly hidden life. So try not to disturb them when you visit them in captivity, ok?
- It shares some characteristics with both the prosimians4 (being nocturnal, with grooming claws and a bicornuate5 uterus) and the anthropoids6 (since it does not have a tapetum – the reflective layer in the eye, and the monthly sexual swellings of a female), while it has some characteristics peculiar to itself.
- An average adult is about the size of an adult male’s fist. It measures only about 85 to 160 mm (3.35 – 6.3 inches) in height, making it one of the smallest primates3. It weighs 113-142 grams. Males are larger than females.7 It can live from 12-20 years old7, but up to 24 years in the wild.
- It is a member of the approximately 45-million-year-old family Tarsiidae, derived from its elongated “tarsus” or (very long) ankle bone. It is said to date back to the early Eocene Period (54-36 million years ago), and probably one of the oldest land species continuously existing in the Philippines.7
- It is locally called by different names: “mawmag” (in Cebu/Visayas), mamag (in Luzon), magatilok-iok, magau, mago, malmag, and maomag.
- It is found in the southeastern part of the Philippines, particularly on the islands of Bohol, Leyte, Samar and parts of Mindanao, including Basilan Island, Dinagat Island, Maripipi Island and Siargao Island.
- Females typically live longer than their male counterparts due to their less aggressive nature. Adult males usually attack other males for territory and marked females, often biting and clawing each other to establish dominance that might result in death.8
- Mating season begins in April to May, but can take place any time of the year. So, when you do visit them during these months, be quiet so they can propagate and their population will grow. By the way, the male deposits a mating plug9 in the female’s vagina after intercourse. The female, after mating, returns to her own territory and gives birth after 6 months.
- The female has multiple sets of breasts, but the only functional set is at the pectoralis (breast region). I know what’s on your minds: what the other breasts are for?! Well, they are used as anchor points for the newborn tarsiers. The gestation period lasts 180 days, or 6 months, after which only one young tarsier is born at a time. No nest is built.
- Newborns are breastfed until 2 months after birth, a total of 6 months to take care of the infant. The female appears to take care of the infants exclusively; no male parental care has been observed. The female parks her infant while foraging.7
- The newborn tarsier is born weighing 25-27 grams7, with much fur, and with eyes open. Its body and head length is about 70 mm (2.8 inches) and its tail is around 115 mm (4.5 inches) long. The mother carries the infant in its mouth or on her belly.4 The newborn can move/climb after only two days. It can already cling to branches, jump in 4 days7, move like an adult in 19 days7, and in less than a month after birth, it can start leaping. During the 6 month care period, the color of the eyes of the newborn changes from green/blue to brown. The coat also changes from grayish brown to reddish brown.8
- A juvenile, after the 6 month care period, leaves the mother to find his/her own territory, or fight for one. It tends to be more uniformly colored than adults. A year-old male has visible testicles and gains more masculine features.
- After 2-3 years of age, it is able to take a mate. The male starts to become more aggressive at this age while the female starts to have vaginal swellings with bloody discharge, like menstruation.8 The female has an estrus cycle, i.e., a recurring period of heat, for 23.5 days.
- The peak age is five years old for both genders as they gain their maximum size, growing to 4-5 inches. They also acquire permanent dentition (the arrangement/condition of the teeth) around this time.8
- Its eyes are disproportionately large, having the largest eye-to-body size ratio of all mammals. In volume, the capacity of the bony eye orbits, or eye sockets, is larger than that of the brain case, and also larger than its stomach. Very interesting!
- These large eyes enable this nocturnal animal with excellent night vision. In bright light, its eyes can constrict until the pupil appears to be only a thin line. In darkness, the pupil can dilate and fill up almost the entire eye.
- Its eyes are fixed in its skull so they cannot move in their sockets, just like other tarsiers. But no worries, since a special adaptation in the neck allows its round head to be rotated 180°, just like an owl.7 Amazing!
- Its large membranous ears are mobile, appearing to be almost constantly moving, allowing it to hear any movement.
- It has sharp teeth, enabling it to catch its prey easily. It has only two incisors in its lower jaw, a unique feature among primates.3
- Adults have thin, gray to dark brown, rough fur.
- The narrow, very long tail is bald except for a tuft of hair at the end, and is about twice the body length, about 232 mm (9.1 inches). A very long tail indeed! The underside has dermal ridges like those found on human hands and feet. Anyway, what is the tail for? It is used for balancing like a tripod; they prefer an erect posture AT ALL times.7
- It is arboreal, meaning it lives in trees. It habitually clings to trees and is capable of leaping from branch to branch. Its elongated ankle bone, called tarsus, is twice the length of its trunk which allows it to jump at least 3 meters from tree to tree, with movements similar to a frog.7
- It prefers dense, low-level vegetation in secondary forests, with perching sites averaging 2 meters above the ground.
- Its long digits (its fingers!) are tipped with rounded pads that allow it to cling easily to trees and to grip almost any surface. The thumb is not truly opposable (i.e., it is not capable of moving forward and touching the other digits on the same hand), but the first toe is. All of the digits have flattened nails, except for the second and third toes, which have sharp claws, specialized for grooming. The middle finger is elongated.7
- It is nocturnal. During the day, it sleeps in dark hollows, close to the ground, near the trunks of trees and shrubs, ideally deep in the impenetrable bushes and forests. It only becomes active at night, basically to hunt for food, and even then, with its keen sight and amazing ability to maneuver around trees, it is well able to avoid humans.
- It can travel up to 1.5 km across its habitat, i.e., tropical rainforests, with dense vegetation and trees, and the optimal area is more than 6 hectares. But wait! It is found to have either a monogamous or polygamous mating system.
- Both males and females are solitary animals. The home range is 6.45 hectares for males and 2.45 hectares for females, allowing for a density of 16 male and 41 female tarsiers per 100 hectares. Well, that means the females can choose their male partners, and that is the reason why some are polygamous!
- It is primarily insectivorous, i.e., its diet consists of live insects (crickets, cockroaches and grasshoppers), small crustaceans/vertebrates (like small birds and lizards) and spiders. Upon seizing its prey, it carries it to its mouth using both hands.
- Yes, it uses varied means of communication even if it is less vocal than other primate species. It uses calls which are often associated with territorial maintenance and male-female spacing. It has a loud, piercing, single note call, and a soft, sweet, bird-like twill sound of contentment. When several of them come together, the combined effect of their chirping is a locust-like sound. But wait, there’s more! Infants can vocalize a distress call when they are separated from their mothers. And there is also a male’s call during mating season! Females have a special sound to indicate that they are fertile.7
- It also has a remarkable scent from the circumoral gland located around the mouth which the female uses to mark her mate. The males have epigastric glands which they use for scent making. They mark their territory with their urine.
- Females perform tactile communication through social grooming, removing dead skin and parasites from their offsprings and mates.
- It hates the rain! It uses thick layers of leaves as a natural “roof” or cover so it does not get directly hit by rain water.8
- In the past, i.e., for the past 45 million years, it was protected by the humid rainforests and mist-shrouded hills, but recently, it is struggling to survive as its natural habitat is cleared for crop growing, illegal logging, and growing human population. Thus, their population is a dangerously small size. It is currently categorized as a “lower risk, conservation dependent” species, i.e., although it is not yet categorized as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, it could qualify for one of those categories within five years if the present protection programs are stopped.7
- There is a Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Incorporated (PTFI), a non-profit, non-stock corporation based in Tagbilaran City and Corella, Bohol, which was established on April 17, 1996 to conserve, promote research, and establish a sanctuary for this unique animal. It is supported by the Department of Tourism (DOT) and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). To ensure the continued existence of the Philippine tarsier, the PTFI established and maintains facilities to bring tourism to the province of Bohol in a way that is ecologically friendly to this animal, with emphasis on its protection and conservation. Information obtained from the Wikipedia page “Philippine Tarsier Foundation”.10
- Oh, no! It does not do well in captivity. living up to a maximum of 12 years only, compared to even 25 years8 in the wild. Its life expectancy decreases by 2 to 12 years, if taken from the wild. When kept in captivity, individuals may huddle together or intertwine their tails. It needs a varied diet and consume 1/10th of its own body weight in order to be healthy.8 So, a large supply of different kinds of live insects is needed in captivity! Gosh, it is such a delicate, sensitive and even suicidal animal! It can develop sore eyes due to poor diet. The lighting used in captivity can cause long-lasting damage to its eyes. It is shy and nervous so camera flashes, being touched, and being kept in an enclosure can stress the animal and may induce it to commit suicide by hitting its head against objects causing death since it has a thin skull.
I sincerely wish that we can leave these gentle, peaceful, sensitive primates alone in their habitat where they have survived for 45 million years. But reality hurts thinking that we, humans, force them out of their natural habitat for various reasons — one of which we are guilty of: tourism!
Oh, what big eyes you have, Tarsier! Sorry to disturb you and your partner!
The Philippine tarsiers I saw during my last visit were in a simulated natural habitat and trained guides helped us to quietly find them sleeping/resting and to take quick videos/pictures without flash. They did not look happy being uncovered since they were hidden in thick leaves. I would not be happy too if someone disturbed my sleep!
Here’s hoping that the PTFI will succeed in its mission and vision of protecting the Philippine tarsier.
As responsible tourists, let us do our share when we visit their captive environment, so they will not be stressed. Stress causes them harm, and eventually shortens their lifespan. We are curious and excited (especially first-time) visitors, so pictures can be taken BUT without flash, please! Remember what bright lights can do to their eyes. Let us not be noisy, even when traveling as a group, because we have to remember that they are nocturnal and our daytime visit disturbs their sleeping period. Let us learn to behave and respect their need for solitude and rest during daytime. Never touch a tarsier even if you have a chance and want desperately to do so! Just be contented in appreciating their unique features when you visit Bohol so our next generations can still be able to see them too!
Contact: The Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc., Km. 14 Canapnapan, Corella, Bohol 6300 Philippines
Contact Person: Joannie Mary Cabillo, Program Manager; Mobile Number: (0908) 9378094
Telephone Number; (0912) 5163375; Mobile Number: (0918) 6021326
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1” Philippine tarsier,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippine_tarsier.
2A tarsier is a small insectivorous, nocturnal primate with very large eyes, a very long tufted tail, long hind limbs, belonging to the family Tarsiidae, and native to the islands of Southeast Asia, according to the Wikipedia page “Tarsier”.11
3A primate is a mammal of the order Primates, with two main groupings: prosimians (e.g., tarsiers2, lemurs and lorisoids) and anthropoids (e.g., apes and monkeys), according to the Wikipedia page “Primate”.12
4Prosimians are a group of primates that include all living and extinct strepsirrhines, i.e., adapiforms, haplorhine tarsiers, lemurs, lorisoids, and the extinct omomyiforms, according to the Wikipedia page “Prosimian”.13
5A bicornuate uterus is a heart-shaped uterus composed of two horns separated by a septum, according to the Wikipedia page “Bicornuate uterus”.14
6Anthropoids are apes and monkeys, according to the Wikipedia page “Simian”.15
9A mating plug is a gelatinous secretion used in the mating of some species, like the tarsier. It is deposited by a male into a female genital tract, such as the vagina, and later hardens into a plug or glues the tract together. While females can expel the plugs afterwards, the male’s sperm still gets a time advantage in getting to the egg, which is often the deciding factor in fertilization. Information is obtained from the Wikipedia page “Mating plug”.16
10”Philippine Tarsier Foundation,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippine_Tarsier_Foundation.
11“Tarsier,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarsier.
12“Primate,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primate.
13“Prosimian,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosimian.
14“Bicornuate uterus,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicornuate_uterus.
15“Simian,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simian.
16“Mating plug,” accessed February 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mating_plug.