Meet the Dinagat-Caraga tarsier, a distinctive evolutionary lineage of primate that has just been discovered from the southeastern Philippines, an international team of biologists working with the Philippine government’s Biodiversity Management Bureau announced today. The discovery of the new genetic type of primate was funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.
The tarsier [a big-eyed nocturnal animal about the size of an adult man’s hand] is known only from the small island of Dinagat, and the adjacent northeast corner of the larger island of Mindanao to the south, says a news statement about the research published today in the open access science journal PLoS ONE. “With its giant eyes, fuzzy face, and prominent ears, the discovery will no doubt attract attention as an adorably cute new ecotourism focal point—much like its furry cousin on Bohol Island,” says the statement released by the Biodiversity Institute of the University of Kansas on behalf of the institutions involved in the study.
The discovery identifies an important new example of a “conservation flagship species” that has the potential to increase public awareness of the Philippines’ astounding resident biodiversity, says National Geographic grantee and project leader Rafe Brown, of the University of Kansas. “If protected by the Philippine government, [it may] extend protection like an umbrella to the many species of unique birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants, and invertebrates that share its rain forest home.”
The findings will restructure conservation targets in Philippine tarsiers, placing much greater urgency on the populations of Dinagat Island, and nearby Mindanao Island’s Caraga Region, in addition to the already protected populations in other parts of the species’ range, Brown predicted.
“We are happy to continue our support of research on biodiversity and the recognition of new and even cryptic species,” says John Francis, National Geographic Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration. “It is key to identify species at risk so we can take action accordingly, especially in areas as rich and threatened as the Philippines.”
The undocumented nature of hidden or “cryptic” species has become a pervasive theme in the study of the country’s biodiversity, the news release explained. Cameron Siler, of University of Oklahoma and collaborator on the paper explains: “Discovering and documenting Philippine biodiversity has become an exercise in integrative, multidisciplinary studies that take advantage of multiple sources of data, like genetic and acoustic information, in addition to traditional studies of animals’ physical characteristics.”
“This is a very exciting time to be an anthropologist working on primates—and also an especially exciting moment for our friends in the Philippines!”
“This unprecedented scientific “Renaissance” in the use of numerous lines of evidence combined to increasingly provide new insights into the study of biodiversity has become a trend that is spreading across Asia and the world. And even for well-studied groups like primates and birds, the results are staggering,” the news statement adds. “Numbers of nocturnal primate species have nearly doubled over the last 15 years,” says project collaborator Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist from Dartmouth College. “This is a very exciting time to be an anthropologist working on primates—and also an especially exciting moment for our friends in the Philippines!”
University of the Philippines Biology Professor Perry S. Ong notes the cooperative work involved, among multiple institutions from several countries, to make the study happen. “The success of the cooperative work was based on mutual trust and the desire to resolve scientific questions that have practical conservation applications. Whereas before, tarsiers from the Philippines are viewed as a single species wherever they are found and thus receive the same conservation attention. With the results of this study, the survival of the three genetically distinct variants of the tarsier needs to be ensured through targeted conservation programs, including the establishment of critical habitats.”
Until this discovery, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species recognized ten species of tarsier. One species is Critically Endangered (at extremely high risk of extinction in the wild), two are Endangered, while most of the others are either Vulnerable or there is insufficient data to determine their status. Tarsiers generally are under pressure from degraded habitat. There have also been reports of tarsiers being hunted for bush meat.
Related news story: “Extinct Primate” Found in Indonesia (National Geographic Conservation Trust Grantee Sharon Gursky-Doyen)
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Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.