After visiting the fearsome dragons of Komodo Island, I headed to the island of Bohol in the Philippines, in search of a creature with considerably cuter looks – the Philippine Tarsier. The contrast couldn’t have been more extreme; within moments of laying eyes on my first tarsier, I had concluded that this was probably the world’s cutest animal!
The Philippine tarsier is one of the smallest primates, with a body length of around 10cm. Their enormous eyes are their most distinguishing feature; they actually have the largest eye-to-body size ratio of any mammal! A tarsier’s eyes are so large that they cannot swivel in its skull… instead the animal has to turn its head to face whatever it is looking at. Since tarsiers are nocturnal, their massive eyes give them excellent night vision.
Their innocent demeanor belies that fact that these animals are consummate predators. In fact, tarsiers are the only entirely carnivorous primates on earth. I was actually taken aback by just how veracious these little predators are…
As I was photographing one of the lethargic bundles of fur, a large, juicy katydid (an insect resembling a grasshopper) appeared. The tarsier’s huge ears instantly swiveled towards it, like two satellite dishes locking in on a signal. It then slowly and deliberately turned its head to face its unsuspecting quarry. After a pause of a second or two, the tarsier exploded, leaping two meters through the air to land squarely on top of the insect. In an instant, the tarsier had dispatched its victim by biting its head off. It then proceeded to chomp through the katydid’s fat body, eating everything but the wings. I thought this hardly seemed to be appropriate behavior for the world’s cutest creature!
Sadly, the Philippine tarsier’s loveable looks are contributing to the decline of the species; tarsiers are commonly taken from the wild to sell as house pets or for exhibiting to unenlightened tourists. These tarsiers do not usually survive long as they do not take well to being handled or woken up regularly during the day. Rapid habitat loss and domestic cats also pose a grave threat to the survival of the species. On the island of Bohol, wild tarsiers used to be a common sight until around 1960. Since then it has been estimated that the number living in the wild has dwindled to less than 1,000.
I would like to thank Carlito Pizarras of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation who helped me find and photograph these tarsiers. The Philippine Tarsier Foundation is providing a lifeline for the species by establishing protected areas, educating communities, conducting tarsier research and promoting responsible ecotourism.
For more tarsier pictures, visit our Philippines gallery.