Meet the Philippine tarsier: Second-smallest primate on the planet

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CNN  — 

With its teeny tiny body, bat-like ears and bug eyes, the Philippine tarsier might be the most peculiar primate on earth.

It’s also the second-smallest, weighing just three to five ounces and measuring up to six inches long.

Just how tiny is that? About the size of an adult palm.

Native to the southeastern Philippines, the 45-million-year-old species faces a triple threat to its existence: low birth rates, exploitative tourism and habitat destruction from logging and mining.

According to the International Primate Protection League, there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Philippine tarsiers left in the wild and the number is plummeting.

In recent years, the Philippine tarsier was named a specially protected faunal species by the government and designated as “near threatened” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Part of the problem is these animals require a specific habitat,” Joannie Mary Cabillo, of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, tells CNN.

“They only live in forests with bushy vegetation, and lots of insects to eat. They don’t have that many homes in the world.”

In tarsier territory

In the town of Corella on Bohol Island, the Philippine Tarsier Foundation set up shop in 1996, aiming to provide a natural habitat for the animals and an opportunity to study their behavior.

The Foundation looks after roughly 100 of these animals across an 8.4-hectare forested sanctuary, with one open observational enclosure that allows tarsiers to come and go as they please.

“Since tarsiers are so rare, many people try to exploit them – turning tarsiers into an attraction,” explains Cabillo.

“Thousands of tourists come to Bohol to see these creatures every year. But they’re often under stressful and unnatural conditions. They’re being shown off during the day, when they should be sleeping.”

If the animals are up all day, they can’t hunt at night, which causes a destructive cycle.

“They’ll be hungry and unhappy, and struggle to reproduce,” says Cabillo.

“The less the human intervention for the tarsiers, the better.”

Life of a tarsier

A trek through the sanctuary will reward travelers with a glimpse of these quirky animals without disturbing them, thanks to expert tarsier spotters who know their habits.

By day, they’ll likely be lazing around in the trees, resting after an active night of hunting.

Tarsiers spend all night leaping through the trees, up 10 to 15 feet at a time, to hunt live prey such as crickets, small birds, beetles, lizards and frogs.

“Sometimes you’ll see three, sometimes five – and if you’re lucky, you’ll see a mom and a baby together,” says Cabillo.

The animal’s oversized eyes are actually larger than both its brain and stomach, which accounts for its owl-like behavior.

“Because of their huge eyeballs, tarsiers can’t move their eyes around, so instead they move their neck,” says Cabillo.

“They can move 180 degrees left, and 180 degrees right.”

Like a tiny lion

The diminutive primate might seem soft and cuddly, but it isn’t as sweet as it looks.

“Male tarsiers are very territorial,” explains Cabillo. “If a male trespasses on another’s territory, they will fight to the death.”

If the usurper wins? He will practice infanticide, killing the opponent’s offspring.

Low birth rates and infanticide makes it doubly difficult for the animals to maintain their populations.

Similar to humans, female tarsiers produce just one baby a year.

They are pregnant for six months, then care for the infant for another six months, teaching it to hunt and survive on its own.

“They may be cute, but they are predators by nature,” says Cabillo. “They are like a tiny version of a lion.”