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Scientists discover long-lost Furby-look-alike

  • Story Highlights
  • Pygmy tarsiers thought to be extinct for more than eight decades
  • Scientists working in Lore Lindu National Park caught and released three
  • Primate resembles Furby toy that was popular in 1990s
  • Scientist says villages near park threaten pygmy tarsiers' existence
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By Taylor Gandossy
CNN
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(CNN) -- Scientists have found a wide-eyed primate -- a clawed fur ball that fits snugly in one hand -- in the first live sighting in more than 80 years of a creature that some thought was extinct.

"It was truly amazing," one scientist said. "I couldn't conceive that we had actually caught one."

Over a two-month period, scientists working in Lore Lindu National Park on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi caught and released three pygmy tarsiers. They bear a striking resemblance to the Furby, an electronic toy that spoke its own fantasy language and dominated children's wish lists in the late 1990s.

They caught two males and one female, said Sharon Gursky-Doyen, a Texas A&M University anthropology professor who led the expedition. The group spotted a fourth -- high in the tree canopy -- but were unable to catch it.

The species had not been observed alive in more than eight decades, since they were collected for a museum in 1921. Many scientists had believed them to be extinct until eight years ago, when two scientists trapping rats in Sulawesi accidentally trapped and killed one.

"I needed to go myself ... to confirm in my own mind," whether they were there, Gursky-Doyen told CNN on Wednesday, after recently returning from Indonesia.

And, on the second night of trapping in August on moss-covered, chilly Mt. Rore Katimbo, her group caught the first small nocturnal creature in a mist net.

"It was truly amazing," she said. "My whole body was shaking ... I couldn't conceive that we had actually caught one."

The second trapping didn't come until three weeks later, but that first sighting "kept us going," Gursky-Doyen said, amid the cold, drenched conditions.

The pygmy tarsier, or Tarsius pumilus, weighs about 50 grams (1.7 ounces), and has dense fur, large, protruding eyes. In addition to seeming as a living, breathing version of the Furby, it also appears as though it ought to have had appeared in the 1984 movie "Gremlins."

Unlike other primates, the pygmy tarsier -- endemic to a specific area of Indonesia -- has claws instead of nails on its fingers. It is half as big as the Philippines tarsier, which has similar features.

For their part, the pygmy tarsiers may have been more frightened than elated at being discovered.

"I was bit once, but I take responsibility for that," Gursky-Doyen said, explaining that the animal nipped her as she was trying to attach a radio collar -- to track its movement -- to its neck. The task isn't an easy one, she said, because the animal can swivel its head around 180 degrees.

Despite another person helping to hold the animal still, he turned and bit her, she said. They have "pointy, triangular teeth," she said. It was "very painful."

But for the most part, they appeared very "passive," she said. Other tarsier species give alarm calls, but these didn't, at least nothing that a human could hear, she said.

Gursky-Doyen said she would like her graduate student, Nanda Grow, also on the expedition, to return to the field site for her dissertation, to learn more about the number of animals and how altitude and other variables affect them.

"I do believe that the density of these animals is very low," she said, noting that many villages are located within Lore Lindu National Park. "That threatens them," she said.

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