The Philippine tarsier, known locally as mawmag in Cebuano/Visayan and mamag in Luzon, is a species of tarsier endemic to the Philippines. It is found in the southeastern part of the archipelago, particularly on the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao.
It is a member of the approximately 45-thousand-year-old family Tarsiidae, whose name is derived from its elongated “tarsus” or ankle bone. It is the only member of the genus Carlito, after the species was removed from the genus Tarsius, a new genus named after the conservationist Carlito Pizarras.
Its geographic range also includes Maripipi Island, Siargao Island, Basilan Island and Dinagat Island. Tarsiers have also been reported in Sarangani, although they may be different subspecies.
It was introduced to Western biologists during the 18th century.
The Philippine tarsier measures only about 85 to 160 millimetres (3.35 to 6.30 in) in height, making it one of the smallest primates. The small size makes it difficult to spot. The mass for males is between 80–160 g (2.8–5.6 oz), usually lighter for females, somewhat heavier than other tarsiers such as the pygmy tarsier. The average adult is about the size of a human fist.
Like all tarsiers, the Philippine tarsier’s eyes are fixed in its skull; they cannot turn in their sockets. Instead, a special adaptation in the neck allows its round head to be rotated 180 degrees. The eyes are disproportionately large, having the largest eye-to-body size ratio of all mammals. These huge eyes provide this nocturnal animal with excellent night vision. In bright light the tarsier’s eyes can constrict until the pupil appears to be only a thin line. In darkness the pupil can dilate and fill up almost the entire eye. The large membranous ears are mobile, appearing to be almost constantly moving, allowing the tarsier to hear any movement.
The Philippine tarsier’s habitat is the second growth, secondary forest, and primary forest from sea level to 700 m (2,300 ft). Its habitat also includes tropical rainforest with dense vegetation and trees that offer it protection like tall grasses, bushes and bamboo shoots. It prefers dense, low-level vegetation in secondary forests, with perching sites averaging 2 meters above the ground.
Besides human hunters, feral cats banished from nearby communities are the species main predators, though some large birds are known to prey on it as well. Because of its nocturnal and arboreal habits, the Philippine tarsier is most likely to fall prey to owls, or to small carnivores which it can encounter in its canopy homes.
For the past 45 million years, tarsiers have inhabited rainforests around the world, but now they exist on only a few islands in the Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia. In Bohol, the Philippine tarsier was a common sight in the southern part of the island until the 1960s. Since then, the number has dropped to around 700 on the island according to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. Once protected by the humid rainforests and mist-shrouded hills, these mysterious primates struggle to survive as their home is cleared for crop growing.
Due to the quickly growing human population, which causes more and more forests to be converted to farmland, housing areas and roads, the place where the Philippine tarsier can live its secluded life is disappearing. The dwindling of Philippine forests—the Philippine tarsier’s natural forest habitat—has posed a grave and significant threat to the survival of the Philippine tarsier. Indiscriminate and illegal logging, cutting of trees for firewood, “kaingin” or slash and burn method of agriculture, and human urbanization have encroached on the habitats of the tarsier.
Paradoxically, indigenous superstition coupled with relatively thick rainforest, particularly in Sarangani province, have apparently preserved this endangered species. Indigenous tribes leave the Philippine tarsiers in the wild because they fear that these animals could bring bad luck. One belief passed down from ancient times is that they are pets belonging to spirits dwelling in giant fig trees, known as belete trees. If someone harms a tarsier they need to apologize to the spirits of the forest, or it is thought they will encounter sickness or hardship in life.
The Philippine government has launched various initiatives to save the Philippine tarsier from extinction. Efforts to conserve the species started in 1988 when a study on the tarsier habitat requirements was initiated in Corella, Bohol by the Parks and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) under a financial grant of the Wildlife Conservation International.
This was followed by a Philippine Tarsier Project by Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region 7 in 1991-1992 under the Debt-for-Nature Swap. The Debt-for-Nature Swap, first proposed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 1984, is a long-term source of funding for conservation initiatives, so both international organizations acting as donors and local organizations using funds are able to further their goals of conservation.