Philippine Tarsier

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Philippine Tarsier[1]
Conservation status

Data deficient (IUCN) <ref name=IUCN>Eudey, A. & Members of the Primate Specialist Group (2000). Tarsius syrichta. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 2006-05-12.</ref>

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Tarsiidae
Genus: Tarsius
Species: T. syrichta
Binomial name
Tarsius syrichta
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Geographic distribution of Philippine Tarsier
Geographic distribution of Philippine Tarsier

The Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta; also known as mawmag in Cebuano/Visayan) is an endangered species endemic to the Philippines. It is found in the southeastern part of the archipelago, particularly in the provinces of Bohol, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao.[31] Its name is derived from its elongated "tarsus" or ankle bone[4]

Its geographic range also includes the islands of Maripipi Island, Siargao Island, Basilan and [[Dinagat Island[2] Tarsiers have also been reported in Sarangani, although they may be different subspecies. Believed to be about 45 million years old[5] and perhaps one of the oldest land species to continuously live in the Philippines, it was only introduced to western biologists in the 18th century[6].


Anatomy and morphology

The Philippine Tarsier is a tiny animal, measuring about 4 to 6 inches (15 cm) in height. The small size makes it difficult to discover. The average mass for males is around 134 grams, and for females, around 117 grams. The average adult is about the size of a human fist and will fit very comfortably in the human hand.

Like all tarsiers, the Philippine Tarsier has a round head that can be rotated 180 degrees. It has a special adaptation in the neck to do this, its eyes being fixed and not being able to move. The large membranous ears are mobile[7]and appear to move almost constantly, allowing any movement to be heard. It has uniquely large goggling eyes (disproportionate to its head and body), listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest eyes on a mammal. These huge eyes give it excellent night vision.[8]

The Philippine Tarsier has thick and silky fur colored gray to dark brown. The thin tail is bald except for a tuft of hair at the end, and is about twice the body length, usually used for balance. The hind limbs are elongated and have disk-like pads on the fingertips that help it cling easily to trees. Its "tarsus" or ankle bone is elongated (hence the name) allowing it to jump at least 3 meters from tree to tree without having to touch the ground.[8] The long digits are tipped with rounded pads that allow the tarsier to grip almost any surface. The thumb is not truly opposable, but the first toe is. All of the digits have flattened nails, except for the second and third toes, which have sharp claws that are used for grooming[9].

The dental formula is 2:1:3:3 in the upper jaw and 1:1:3:3 in the lower jaw, with relatively small upper canines.[7]

Range and distribution

The Philippine Tarsier, as its name suggests, is endemic to the Philippines. Established populations are generally found in the southeastern part of the archipelago, particularly on the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao.[3] They have also been found on various isolated islands within its known range, such as Maripipi Island, Siargao Island, Basilan Island and Dinagat Island.

Ecology and life history

Tarsier tree climbing


The Philippine Tarsier's habitat is second growth, secondary forest, and primary forest from sea level to 700 m.[10] Its habitat also includes tropical rainforest with dense vegetation and trees that offer it protection like tall grasses, bushes and bamboo shoots.

Research findings also show that the Philippine Tarsier prefers dense, low-level vegetation in secondary forests, with perching sites averaging 2 meters above the ground.[11]

Home range

Studies show that the Philippine Tarsier appears to have a home range of 1 to 2 hectares.[3] Recent research shows that home ranges average 6.45 hectares for males and 2.45 hectares for females (MCP and Kernel 95%), allowing for a density of 16 male and 41 female tarsiers per 100 hectares.[12]

Research findings also show that while both male and female tarsiers are solitary animals, they cross each other's paths under the cover of nightfall as they hunt for prey. They travel up to one and a half kilometres across the forest and the optimal area is more than six hectares.[13]

Ecosystem roles

The Philippine Tarsier is carnivorous. Its diet consists primarily of live insects, particularly crickets and grasshoppers. It is also observed to feed on spiders, small crustaceans, and vertebrates such as small lizards and birds. Upon seizing its prey, the tarsier carries it to its mouth using both hands.[3]

Besides human hunters, feral cats from nearby communities are the species' main predators, though owls are known to prey on tarsiers as well.[14]

As predators, the Philippine Tarsier may help to structure insect communities. To the extent that it is preyed upon by other animals, it may impact predator populations.


The Philippine Tarsier is a shy, nocturnal[3] animal that leads a mostly hidden life. During the day, it sleeps in dark hollows close to the ground, near the trunks of trees and shrubs deep in the impenetrable bushes and forests. It only becomes active at night, and even then, with its much better sight and amazing ability to maneuver through trees, it is usually able to avoid humans.[6]

It is arboreal[3] and is a vertical clinger and leaper,[7] habitually clinging vertically to trees and are capable of leaping from branch to branch.


Although less vocal than many primate species, the tarsier uses calls which are associated with territorial maintenance and male-female spacing.[3] Its "loud call" is a loud piercing single note. When content, it emits a soft bird-like trill. When several tarsiers come together, they make a chirping, locust-like sound.[15]

Its vocal communication is the distress call made by infants when they are separated from their mothers. It is also the call made by males to their mates during mating season. Its olfactory communication is the marking of a scent from the circumoral gland which the female uses to mark her mate with the gland located around the mouth. It is also the marking of a male's territory with the use of urine. Its tactile communication is the social grooming done when one tarsier removes dead skin and parasites from another, as observed in females with adult males, as well as with their offspring.[7]

Tarsier with a baby


The Philippine Tarsier's pregnancy or gestation period lasts about 6 months. The female's estrous cycle lasts 25-28 days.[7] Mating season begins in April to May. The male "plugs" the female’s vagina after intercourse. The female gives birth to one offspring per gestation cycle.

The infant is born with a lot of hair and with its eyes open. The female carrys the infant in her mouth. A newborn can already cling to branches and less than a month after birth, it can start leaping. After 2 months, it leaves the mother.

The Philippine Tarsier reproduces poorly in captivity.[16]

Etymology and taxonomic history

The Philippine Tarsier has been called "the world's smallest monkey" or "smallest primate" by locals before. However, the Philippine Tarsier is neither a monkey nor the smallest primate. It is related to other primates, including monkeys, lemurs, gorillas and humans, but it occupies a small evolutionary branch between the strepsirrhine prosimians and the haplorrhine simians. While it is a prosimian, and used to be grouped with the rest of the prosimians, it has some phylogenetic features that caused scientists to classify it as a haplorrhine and, therefore, more closely related to apes and monkeys than to the other prosimians.

The smallest primate is actually the Pygmy Mouse Lemur, while the smallest monkey is the Pygmy Marmoset. Nevertheless, the Philippine Tarsier is still one of the smallest primates, and is considered to be the mammal with the biggest eyes.[17]

Although the species is believed to be about 45 million years old, and is perhaps one of the oldest land species to continuously live in the Philippines, it was only introduced to Western biologists in the 18th century through the description given to J. Petiver by the missionary J.G. Camel of an animal said to have come from the Philippines. Petiver published Camel's description in 1705 and named the animal Cercopithecus luzonis minimus which was the basis for Linnaeus' (1758) Simia syrichta and eventually Tarsius syrichta, the scientific name it is known by at present.[18] Among the locals, the tarsier is known as "mamag", "mago", "magau", "maomag", "malmag" and "magatilok-iok".[19]

According to records of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, three subspecies are presently recognized: Tarsius syrichta syrichta from Leyte and Samar, Tarsius syrichta fraterculus from Bohol and Tarsius syrichta carbonarius from Mindanao.[20]

The IUCN taxonomic notes lists two subspecies but the non-nominate one is poorly defined at present, so the species is treated as a whole. Tarsius syrichta carbonarius and Tarsius s. fraterculus: Hill (1955) recognized these taxa as weakly defined subspecies. Niemitz (1984) found the differences to be insignificant based upon comparisons with museum specimens. Musser and Dagosto (1987) felt that the available museum specimens were insufficient to resolve the issue, but mentioned that Heaney felt that a single male tarsier from Dinagat might be distinct. Groves (2001) did not recognize subspecies of T. syrichta.[21]

Importance to humans

There is no known negative impact of the Philippine Tarsier on humans, just as long as it is in its native environment. However, when kept as pets, there is a possibility that the species may spread worms and other parasites to their human owners.

Tarsiers used to be kept as pets or sold for trade, although their survival in captivity is erratic due to their need for live insects upon which to feed. Scientists are interested in these animals because of their unique taxonomic position, and study of tarsiers may aid human economies.


In 1986, the Philippine Tarsier was assessed as "endangered" by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Conservation Monitoring Centre. It was still classified as "endangered" by the IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre in 1988, as well as in 1990. In 1996, it was assessed as "lower risk/conservation dependent" by Baillie and Groombridge (1996).[22]

On September 13, 1991, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, per DENR Administrative Order Number 48 or DAO 48, listed the Philippine Tarsier as an endangered species: species and subspecies of wildlife whose populations are in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue operating.[23]

The Philippine Tarsier is listed in Appendix II of CITES,[24] and the U.S. Endangered Species Act classifies it as threatened.[25]

In 2000, the IUCN, having continuously listed the Philippine Tarsier as endangered,[25] further assessed the species in its red list category as "data deficient" (DD)[2] which means that there is inadequate information to make a direct or indirect assessment of its risks of extinction based on its distribution and/or population status. Further, it basically means that it is not known how close the species is to extinction or if it is at a lower risk.

Being classified as such, the sale and trade of the species is prohibited. In addition, research on the species, particularly using invasive techniques, is controlled by the DENR Environment Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) and requires Environmental Compliance Certificate/Environmental Impact Statement or ECC/EIS.

Threats to the species

For the past 45 million years, tarsiers have inhabited rainforests around the world, but now they only exist on a few islands in the Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia.[13] Once protected by the humid rainforests and mist-shrouded hills, these mysterious primates struggle to survive as their home is cleared for crop growing.

Due to the quickly growing human population, which causes more and more forests to be converted to farmland, housing areas and roads, the place where the Philippine Tarsier can live its secluded life is disappearing.[17]

Along this line, the dwindling of Philippine forests has posed a grave and significant threat to the survival of the Philippine Tarsier because this results in the destruction of its natural forest habitat. Indiscriminate and illegal logging, cutting of trees for firewood, "kaingin" or slash and burn method of agriculture, and urbanization patterns have all encroached on the habitats of the tarsier.[26]

In addition, because of its adorable and benign appearance, the tarsier pet trade was until recently a thriving industry. The capture and illegal trade of the animal further diminishes its remaining population.[17] Its life span in the wild is around 24 years, but averages only 12 when kept in captivity. This is due to the fact that it is easily distressed by being displayed and physically handled during the day contrary to its natural biological rhythm.[17] It has been reported that some tarsiers were so traumatized by captivity that they committed suicide by beating their heads against the cages or drowning themselves in their drinking bowls.

Paradoxically, indigenous superstition coupled with thick rainforest, particularly in Sarangani province, have apparently helped to preserve the species. Indigenous tribes leave the Philippine Tarsiers in the wild because they fear that these animals could bring bad luck. One belief passed down from ancient times is that they are pets belonging to spirits dwelling in giant fig trees, known as balete trees. If one harms a tarsier it is believed that they need to apologize to the spirits of the forest, or one will experience sickness or misfortune.[13]

Conservation efforts


Signage at entry to Philippine Tarsier Foundation Research and Development Center

Several legislations have been passed to protect and conserve the Philippine Tarsier. DENR Administrative Order No. 38, Series of 1991 (DAO No. 38) included the Philippine Tarsier among the national protected wildlife species and proposed its listing under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Moreover, the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group had given the species Conservation Priority Rating 4, which means that the species is highly vulnerable and threatened by habitat destruction and/or hunting.

Proclamation 1030 was signed by then President of the Philippines Fidel V. Ramos on June 23, 1997, declaring the Philippine Tarsier a specially protected faunal species. [1] The Proclamation contains that since the Philippine Tarsier, endemic to the Philippines, offers immense ecological, aesthetic, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the country and to the Filipino people, it is a matter of national concern. The Proclamation thus prohibits the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away, or possession of the Philippine Tarsier, but that possession for educational, scientific, conservation-centered research purposes may be allowed upon certification of the DENR Secretary. Further, the DENR is also tasked to collaborate with other concerned government agencies, non-governmental organizations, local government units and local communities in the conduct of accelerated and expanded field researches and to avail of financial support and technical cooperation from local and international entities, as may be deemed necessary to implement the provisions of the Proclamation.[27]

Republic Act No. 7586, otherwise known as the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1991, mandates the establishment of appropriate sanctuaries to preserve and protect the Philippine Tarsier.

There are also legislations at the local level, including Provincial ordinances and proclamations (Bohol Province), municipal ordinances (Corella), barangay ordinances (Canapnapan, etc.).

On July 30, 2001, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Republic Act No. 9147, otherwise known as the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, that provided for the conservation and protection of wildlife resources and their habitats, including the Philippine Tarsier, and its inclusion as a flagship species.[28]

Philippine debt-for-nature swap program

Efforts to conserve the species started in 1988 when a study on the tarsier habitat requirements was initiated in Corella, Bohol by the Parks and Wildlife Bureau or PAWB under the financial grant of the Wildlife Conservation International. This was followed by a Philippine Tarsier Project by DENR Region 7 in 1991-1992 under the Debt-for-Nature Swap Project.[31]

The debt-for-nature swap, first proposed by the World Wildlife Fund in 1984, is a scheme in which conservation organizations acquired title to debt, either by direct donation from a bank, or by raising the cash to buy it, and then negotiate with the debtor countries to obtain debt repayment in local currency at a favorable conversion rate, or to secure conservation measures/activities.[31]

Haribon Foundation was the local NGO partner in this venture. Haribon became the fund manager of the program, handling all financial transactions with the Central Bank of the Philippines while release of funds to all the projects was facilitated. One of the projects implemented in the first year was the "Endangered Species Conservation: Philippine Tarsier" supervised by DENR.[32]

Philippine Tarsier Foundation Incorporated

Main: Philippine Tarsier Foundation
PTFI Tarsier Research and Development Center, Corella,Bohol

The Philippine Tarsier Foundation Inc. based in Tagbilaran City, Bohol, Philippines is spearheading the campaign to preserve the Philippine Tarsier. Under a Memorandum of Agreement with the DENR signed on April 27, 1997, its mission is: to establish a forest reserve on the island of Bohol which shall serve as the sanctuary of the Philippine Tarsier; to protect and manage the tarsier sanctuary through the active participation of local communities; to establish and maintain a wildlife research laboratory for the study of the ecology and biology of the Philippine Tarsier; to establish and maintain visitor facilities for ecotourism and disseminate information material about the Philippine Tarsier with emphasis on the species' protection and conservation."[33]

The PTFI was able to acquire 7.4 hectares of land in Corella, Bohol for the sanctuary. With the DENR playing an oversight role, the foundation has asked other Bohol towns with tarsier populations to donate 20 hectares of forestland for conservation.

The foundation also runs a Tarsier Research and Development Center, which serves as a visitor center and venue for research, as well as a habitat preserve.[34] At the sanctuary, a spacious net enclosure keeps 100 Philippine Tarsiers for feeding, captive breeding and display. Here, visitors can observe the Philippine Tarsier in their natural habitat. Within the sanctuary, the Philippine Tarsiers roam freely and all of them have gotten used to a seven-foot high fence that circumscribes the territory and which serves mainly to protect them from predators like feral cats. At night, tarsiers can be seen climbing out of the fence to forage for food farther into the forest. They return again before daybreak, as if observing a curfew.[27]

Tarsier Sanctuary captive display

Captive tarsier display in Loboc, Bohol

Because the Philippine Tarsier sanctuary is off the tourist path,[351] private individuals in Loboc, Bohol have provided an alternative way for tourists to see tarsiers through their displays along the Loboc river banks. This captive tarsier display is conveniently on the way to other tourist spots in Bohol, particularly the Chocolate Hills in Carmen.[36]

Despite the protected status of the Philippine Tarsier, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has granted special limited permits for this display. Here, tourists can see the tarsier up close and personal and take pictures, but are not allowed to touch them. Unfortunately, the tarsiers here are semi-captive and exposed to psychological stress from close contact with humans. As such, these shy animals have miserable lives and normally don't survive for long.[37] Further, the possession of these tarsiers for display encourages people to keep them as pets.[36]


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