2 new types of tiny, wide-eyed tarsiers discovered in Indonesia

May 8, 2017, 1:35 p.m.
Two new species of tarsiers have been discovered
Photo: Myron Shekelle/Lynn Clayton

You may have never seen a tarsier in person, but the wide-eyed creature may still look eerily familiar. That's likely because the diminutive, nocturnal primate found only on a few islands in Southeast Asia is rumored to have been the inspiration for Yoda of "Star Wars" fame.

Two new species of this distinctive animal — Tarsius spectrumgurskyae (pictured left) and Tarsius supriatnai — have been discovered on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

The animals were named for tarsier behavior expert Sharon Gursky, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, and conservation biologist Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia. The new study outlining the discovery was published in the journal Primate Conservation.

When lead author Myron Shekelle, a research associate at Western Washington University's Department of Anthropology, began his work, he says only three to five species of tarsiers were recognized in the world. Now, with this new discovery, 11 species are recognized just from Sulawesi and the surrounding islands.

'A race against time'

Shekelle said the newly discovered tarsiers look nearly the same, but the calls they make are different. The discovery of the two new species is important because some species are at risk of going extinct due to deforestation.

"Some may be extinct already, for all we know," Shekelle says. "That is the importance of this research. We don’t know how many species of tarsiers there are, and we are in a race against time."

Shekelle and his team plan to describe two more tarsier species in the near future.

"In fact, back in 2004, I predicted that 16 or more species would ultimately be discovered from within the population that had been classified as a single species as recently as 1991. We could probably name two per year for the next several years, at least, if we had the resources."

On his website, tarsier.org, Shekelle lists ways people can help get the next tarsier species described and named, including making donations of money or equipment and spreading awareness. If the latter approach is more your speed, here are some factoids to get the conversation started.

Interesting facts about tarsiers

  • They are most closely related to anthropoid primates, which include monkeys, apes and humans, but they separated from that group 64.2 to 58.4 million years ago.
  • A typical adult male weighs about 4.3 ounces, about the same as a stick of butter. Adult females often weigh about 10 percent less.
  • Tarsiers have the largest eyes relative to their body size of any mammal. Each eyeball is about as large as the animal's brain.
  • Like owls, tarsiers can turn their head more than 180 degrees in either direction.