Tarsiers: An Extraordinarily Unique Primate
Tarsiers are chipmunk sized nocturnal primates known for their enormous night adapted eyes and koala-like body appearance. Their face, which resembles that of an owl, is the epitome of innocence. Tarsiers are covered with very soft, beautiful, velvety fur, which is generally buff, beige, or ochre in color. The head and body together range from 10 to 15 cm in length, followed by a 20 to 25 cm long slender tail.
Their name comes from their very long hind limbs and extremely elongated tarsal feet bones. These bones give them an exceptionally powerful leverage when jumping—as much as eighteen feet in a single leap! (Sleeper, Barbara.1997. Primates p. 95) Their powerful legs allow them to jump around in trees more like an arboreal frog than like a primate.(Eimerl, S and I. DeVore, 1966. The Primates p. 23) On the ground they can walk on all fours or jump on two legs, but they usually leap like frogs for distances as far as two meters. (Grzimek,B. 1972. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia vol 10 p. 308) Their fingers are so elongated that the third finger is about the same length as their upper arm.
Tarsiers resemble lower primates in both behavior and morphology, yet genetic evidence places them closer to monkeys and other higher primates. Called the world’s smallest monkey, they are not monkeys and their classification is very problematic. As one primatologist concluded, “Without a doubt, Tarsius is an extraordinarily unique mammal” (Schwartz, J. 2003. “How close are the similarities between Tarsius and other primates?” ch. 3 p. 88 in Wright, Patricia et al. Tarsiers: Past, Present and Future). Some of the many major traits that make them “extraordinarily unique” include:
1. Each eyeball is as large as their entire brain, about 16 mm in diameter. Their immense eye sockets are protected by bony flanges extending away from the skull.
2. They have neck vertebrae designed to allow the head to rotate more than 180 degrees to compensate for their lack of eyeball mobility.
3. They have hyper-elongated heel bones and foot bones; and two-thirds of their distal tibia and fibula are fused. Their fingers and toes are tipped with a soft pad (Grzimek vol. 10 p. 308).
4. Their grooming claws are on the second and third digit of the hind foot;
5. Like humans they have comparatively forward placement of the hole where the spinal chord enters the skull.
6. Their locomotor behavior almost universally involves vertical postures (upright as humans walk) instead of the more typical quadripedal locomotion of most other primates.
7. They have conical incisors; and only one pair of lower incisors;
8. Tarsiers feed exclusively on living animals, a behavioral trait shared by no other known primate. (Simons, E..2003. “The Fossil Record of Tarsier Evolution” ch. 14 p. 9 in Wright, et al.)
9. They have very close family relationships—they sleep together by day and hunt together at night. (Sleeper, p. 95)
Another feature that makes Tarsius a unique primate is that they are the only totally carnivorous and insectivorous primate. They consume almost any small animal or insect, including snakes, bats, birds, frogs, fish, crabs, shrimp, and even neurotoxic species. (Schwartz, 2003, p. 51)
Tarsiers are indeed a “one of a kind” animal, unique in the entire animal world. (Eimerl and DeVore p. 23) The three living species and 12 subspecies are in a family by themselves, the tarsiers (Tarsiidae), and in a genus by themselves, Tarsius. (Grzimek vol 10 p. 308) The chasm between tarsiers and all other life forms is so wide that for “centuries, the tiny primate Tarsius has amazed and frustrated those who study it” because its “bizarre attributes make its phylogeny difficult to establish.” Nonetheless, systematists have developed tentative “tarsier phylogenies based on interpretations of data constrained by assumed phylogenies or reconstructed transformation series. Consequently, retrieving specific details of Tarsius anatomy and considering them in light of alternative interpretations is difficult. This situation is an unfortunate legacy of taxonomic practice, whereby the identity (diagnosis) of a new taxon is defined less by the features of the organism than by the ways in which it is thought to be similar to other taxa, which are also defined comparatively.” (Schwartz , 2003, p. 50)
The enormous contrast between tarsiers and all other life forms has stymied evolutionists, and the fossil record has paralyzed them in their quest to find the origins of this little primate.
Tarsiers have the longest continuous fossil record of any primate genus known, but the fossil record does not support macro-evolution. Rather it reveals that they have changed very little, except in size, during the time that evolutionists postulate they have been on the earth, over 45 million years. After a careful evaluation of the similarities between tarsius and other primates, Schwartz concluded that its potential evolutionary relationship, even its status in primate evolution, does not lend itself to any plausible evolutionary scenario (2003, p. 88).
Considered “living fossils” due to their misjudged primitiveness, they were for years called “a living fossil record [that had] no fossil record.” (Jablonski, Nina. “The Evolution of the Tarsier Niche” 2003. ch. 2 p. 35 in Wright et al) Intensive research has now uncovered a large number of fossils back to the Eocene, and the “fragmentary remains of fossil tarsiids recovered from deposits of middle Eocene age onward from Egypt, China, and Thailand indicate that the tarsier’s ‘living fossil’ moniker is well deserved. The morphology of these fragments is remarkably modern, or perhaps better said, the body plan of modern tarsiers is remarkably ancient and conservative.” (Jablonski p. 35)
In other words, no fossil evidence exists for tarsiid evolution and no evidence exists in antiquity for any of their distinctive, or possibly shared, supposed evolutionarily derived features. (Simons, 2003, p. 14) The earliest tarsier fossils are identical, or very close to identical, to modern tarsiers, and thus the first tarsiers were clearly tarsiers.
Simons notes that a primate fossil this old is unprecedented and “no one has ever considered a primate genus as having a temporal extension [meaning history] even a fifth as long.” (2003, pp. 15-16) A primate living fossil this old, as far as can be determined from the fossil remains, has seriously challenged evolutionary orthodoxy.
Tarsiers “share a suit of derived features not seen in other primates” or any other mammal, and thus have challenged all attempts to construct a plausible evolutionary history. (Simons, 2003, p. 9) Their primitive status has now been debunked and they are recognized as very advanced primates. Consequently, this, the least diverse of all primates with the most distinctive collection of all primates, resists even tentative evolutionary explanations. The fact that the first tarsier in the fossil record is a tarsier supports the creation worldview.
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