Skeletal knuckles, a rat-like tail and snubbed snout dominate one’s first impression of the Philippine tarsier. There is a moment of figuring out those eyes. Why are they so big?
Rafe Brown, a herpetologist at the KU Biodiversity Institute, comes across tarsiers in the dark as he searches for nocturnal reptiles and amphibians in the Philippine rain forest.
“When a tarsier spots you, it will often stay put,” said Brown. “They know that they can escape. When they do flee, they ricochet through the forest, bouncing from tree to tree.”
Tarsiers are tiny primates that eat insects and live solitary lives. They are also a flagship species of the Philippines – their alien appearance is used by conservationists to promote preservation of the disappearing Philippine rain forests.
Brown is working to document such flagship species and those that are unknown, too. Brown’s research, a nearly $1 million project funded by the National Science Foundation, brings together herpetologists, mammalogists, parasitologists and ornithologists in an effort to inventory the estimated 3,000 Philippine land vertebrates – including the tarsier – and their parasites. The study will provide the most comprehensive and detailed species data for Philippine biodiversity to date, refreshing the last survey from 1928. The five-year project will conclude in 2013.
With 7,107 islands, each home to a unique concoction of species, The Philippines is a nation with a megadiverse collection of plants and animals. Many of the species found in the Philippines are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else in the world.
The country has about 150 endemic bird, mammal, and amphibian species that are in risk of extinction – the Philippine tarsier among these.
The combination of the rich biodiversity and its increasing rate of habitat loss and extinction in the Philippines have earned the country the title of “biodiversity hotspot.” Ecologists bestow this term on important yet disappearing regions; about thirty hotspots are spread across the globe.
The tarsier is but one of the flagship species of the Philippines. Also critically endangered is the regal Philippine eagle. In Tagalog, the local language, the eagle is called “Haring Ibon” which translates as “The bird king.”
Habitat loss caused by logging and farming has accelerated the urgency for conservation. Philippine governmental agencies and locals conduct conservation efforts, which are informed by expedition-based research carried out by Brown and other scientists. Thus, KU research that investigates the evolution and relationships of species also discovers information about habitat needs, species health and ecological interactions – data that prove essential for holistic, successful conservation efforts.