If you’ve never seen a tarsier (pronounced tar-see-a, from the French meaning ‘a small animal called a tarsier’) you’re in for a real treat. To put it kindly, tarsiers are beyond funny looking, and as is often the case with animals, their aesthetic bad luck is humanity’s boon. Tarsier’s wear an expression that suggests an uncomfortable and persistent state of surprise that makes you feel as if you’re constantly walking in on them at the worst possible moment.
Sorry. Is now a bad time?
Although it’s often billed to gullible tourists as ‘the world’s smallest monkey,’ technically speaking, the tarsier is not quite a monkey. It’s not quite clear what it is, which you can probably guess from a glance. Some scientists classify tarsiers in a taxonomic suborder of primates. Others pound their fists and insist they are prosimians, like lemurs and lorises. Then the DNA experts take the floor and announce that tarsiers share no common ancestors with lemurs and lorises…so they can’t be prosimians. This is usually about the time the laser pointers are set down and the switchblades come out.
Here’s the thing: everyone gets into the taxonomic game to make a name for themselves, and so agreeing with someone else isn’t very helpful. So it’s better to argue – a lot – and hope that one of the hot taxonomic girls notices your turgid prose in the scientific journal Nature and asks if you’d like to co-author a paper on new DNA sequencing techniques.
That being said, we’re happy to report there are some universally-accepted facts about tarsiers. For example, they are very, very small (a tarsier can fit in the palm of your hand, or your hip pocket, and a shoe box is like a whole mansion to them) and they live primarily in the islands of South East Asia in the sort of gorgeous tropical places where you get bile-vomiting sick on vacations that you immediately regret taking (e.g. the Philippines, Sumatra and Borneo). It’s also been established that tarsiers are fiercely arboreal, mainly because they have these huge long legs that work beautifully in the trees but become enormous liabilities otherwise. On the ground, a tarsier is less than useless, so they prefer to do everything up in the canopy: eat, sleep, mate, give birth, raise young, get divorced and eventually seek out bars patronized by an older crowd.
Can you step out of the car please, sir?
Judging from appearances, you wouldn’t guess the tarsier is much of an athlete. For example, if Nature had to assemble a softball team out of prosimians and primates, it’s easy to think the tarsier would be picked last (after the wooly lemur) and sent out to right field. There it would scurry forward at the crack of the bat, pause in confusion as the ball sailed over its head, and finally turn to give chase, stopping to adjust its suspenders and pick up its enormous reading glasses along the way.
This is all true perhaps, but also unfair, only because softball is played on the ground and tarsiers absolutely suck at everything on the ground (except beach volleyball) thanks to those crazy hind legs. Up in the trees, however, these little dudes are proof that looks can be deceiving.
Consider that tarsiers are nocturnal insectivores and part-time carnivores. They hunt insects by leaping from tree to tree (at night and – mind you – completely intoxicated) and snagging them in mid-air. They’ve also been known to catch small birds in flight using the same technique. So while they may not be adapted to turning two from their knees at the edge of the infield, tarsiers have far better hand-eye coordination than most professional athletes and all coed office softball players. Even the girls with the long striped socks who played fast-pitch in college.
When all is said and done, however, tarsiers look pretty silly – and at the risk of sounding superficial – it is going to affect their final grade. No word on how they taste. We’ll get back to you on that one.