November 19, 2008

Researchers Observe Tiny, Long-Lost Primate In Indonesia

Scientists for the first time in 80 years have observed a living pygmy tarsier on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

The researchers said on Tuesday they used nets over a two-month period to trap three furry, mouse-sized pygmy tarsiers on Mt. Rore Katimbo in Lore Lindu National Park in central Sulawesi"”a fourth one got away.

Some scientists believed the tarsiers were extinct. One of the researchers, Sharon Gursky-Doyen, a Texas A&M University professor of anthropology who took part in the expedition, was bitten during the capture.

"I'm the only person in the world to ever be bitten by a pygmy tarsier," Gursky-Doyen said.

"My assistant was trying to hold him still while I was attaching a radio collar around its neck. It's very hard to hold them because they can turn their heads around 180 degrees. As I'm trying to close the radio collar, he turned his head and nipped my finger. And I yanked it and I was bleeding."

The team attached collars to the tarsiers so their movements could be tracked.

Tarsiers are part of the mammalian group of primates that include lemurs, monkeys, apes and people. The few existing tarsier species live on various Asian islands.

The pygmy tarsiers weigh about 2 ounces and have large eyes and large ears, and are often described as looking a bit like one of the creatures in the 1984 Hollywood movie "Gremlins."

The nocturnal insectivores are unique among primates because they have claws rather than fingernails.

Scientists had not seen one alive since 1921. But Indonesian scientists who were trapping rats in the Sulawesi highlands accidentally trapped and killed a pygmy tarsier in 2000.

"Until that time, everyone really didn't believe that they existed because people had been going out looking for them for decades and nobody had seen them or heard them," Gursky-Doyen said.

Her research team observed the first live pygmy tarsier in August at an elevation of about 6,900 feet.

"Everything was covered in moss and the clouds are right at the top of that mountain. It's always very, very foggy, very, very dense. It's cold up there. When you're one degree from the equator, you expect to be hot. You don't expect to be shivering most of the time. That's what we were doing," she said.


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