Is The World's Smallest Monkey Not Really A Monkey?

12th June 2010

The Philippine tarsier is currently classified as a primate and often referred to as the "World's smallest monkey."  Scientists disagree as to what the Tarsier should be classified as.
 
Most creatures in the animal kingdom have clearly defined breeds, species, and classifications that define them. But one animal whose classification is consistently debated among scientists and taxonomists is the Philippine tarsier.

Some scientists consider tarsiers to be in the same family as lemurs and bushbabies, which are known as prosimians. Others say that tarsiers have their own taxonomic suborder, different from other primate species. This very peculiar small animal is in fact one of the smallest known primates, only about the size of an adult man's hand. It is mostly active at night, and lives almost completely on a diet of insects. The habitat of the tarsier is quite limited, as it can be found only on four islands in the Philippines—Samar, Bohol, Leyte, and Mindanao.

Tarsiers are not only smaller than any other primates, they are also decidedly stranger in appearance. Weighing only about 80-150g, they have silky fur that is usually grayish brown or buff-coloured, lighter on the underside. Their heads are round, and as is the case with most night-dwellers, their eyes are remarkably large. Their ears are nearly hairless and almost translucent, and they seem to have no neck at all, although they can turn their head around more than 180 degrees.

Philippine tarsiers are unique among mammals because of their elongated hindlimbs and short forelimbs. Their digits are long and tapered, tipped with soft, rounded toe pads. All of their feet have flattened nails except the second and third hind toes, which have claw-like nails used for grooming.

Local residents of the Philippines call the tarsier a "mamag," "mago," "maomag," and "magatilok-iok," among other things. It is rarely seen and therefore has not been studied extensively. However, there was once a thriving practice of catching tarsiers, killing them, and stuffing them for sale to tourists. This practice has been stopped in recent years, but the damage to the tarsier population may never be known. In addition, the species is also threatened by the destruction of its native forest habitat. Although it is a protected species, many years of both legal and illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have reduced the numbers of tarsiers to dangerously low levels.

The Philippine tarsier is believed to be about 45 million years old, dating back to the early Eocene period, and is probably one of the oldest land species continuously existing in the Philippines. It is currently listed as a "lower risk, conservation dependent" species, which means that it is not yet categorized as endangered. However, if the present protection programs are stopped, the tarsier would quickly become critically endangered.

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