Tarsiers are small primates that live only on islands of Southeast Asia. They live in the trees of dense forests, and have a shy, nervous nature. Tarsiers are active at night (nocturnal), and rest during the day clinging vertically to tree branches. There are approximately 18 different species of tarsier, all of which are haplorrhine (“dry nosed”) primates. Read on to learn about the tarsier.

Description of the Tarsier

The appearance of tarsiers varies between the species, but all are relatively similar with a small, stocky body, and long tail that either has a tuft of fur at the end, or is sparsely covered. Their fur is very soft and the color varies from gray to brown, or reddish-brown. All tarsiers have long hind legs to help them move about in the trees they inhabit. These long legs are due mainly to elongation of bones in an area of the foot called the tarsus – hence the animals’ name.

The Tarsiers’ enormous eyes can be over half an inch (16 mm) across, which enables them to watch for predators and prey at night. They also have large, sensitive ears to detect even the smallest of sounds.

Tarsiers have very long fingers and toes, which have pads at the tips, and nails to help them grip both branches and prey. One distinctive feature of all tarsiers is their long, curved claws on the second and third fingers (sometimes called “digits”) which they use for grooming.

Interesting Facts About the Tarsier

Tarsiers are nocturnal and live in trees (arboreal). They have a number of interesting characteristics to help them with this lifestyle.

  • Eyes – Each of the tarsier’s eyes are as large as their brain.
  • Diet – Tarsiers are the only entirely carnivorous primates.
  • Leaping Ability – Their long hind legs enable them to leap 16 ft (5 m) between branches
  • Flexible Neck – Tarsiers are able to turn their heads 180 degrees in both directions, so they can see behind them without moving their bodies.
  • Baby Size – Of all the mammals, tarsier babies are the largest in relation to their adult size.

Habitat of the Tarsier

The preferred habitat varies between the species, but all live in forests. For example, western tarsiers are usually found in lowland primary forests or low mountain forests, eastern tarsiers live in different levels of forest, and the pygmy tarsier is restricted to very high mountainous forests.

Distribution of the Tarsier

Tarsiers were once found around the world, but in modern times they are restricted to islands in south-east Asia.

Diet of the Tarsier

Tarsiers are unique, in that they are the only primates known that are strictly carnivorous. Their main food source is insects, which they catch by jumping at them. They also prey on birds, bats, lizards, and snakes.

Tarsier and Human Interaction

Because of the shy nature of tarsiers, there is often limited information about their distribution and the effects of human interactions. Forest clearance occurs in much of their natural range for plantation of such things as palm oil trees. Additionally, mining and land clearance have forced the tarsier from its habitats. It is thought that the general population is drastically declining, due to habitat loss and fragmentation of breeding populations. These land-clearing activities have an especially negative effect on small or unique island ecosystems. Tarsiers are also often captured for the exotic pet trade, or trapped for eating.


Tarsiers have not been domesticated.

Does the Tarsier Make a Good Pet

Tarsiers do not make good pets. They are often captured for the exotic pet trade, but many die within a few days because of a lack of availability of live food. Tarsiers would no be particularly interesting as pets, in any case; because, during the day, they hardly move, and only become active at night.

Tarsier Care

Tarsiers are very difficult to care for and, as a consequence, even zoos rarely keep them. Providing sufficient live insects is a major challenge. Ample space should be provided to allow their normal hunting behavior, with vertical surfaces for their resting and sleeping habits.

Behavior of the Tarsier

Tarsiers are very unusual among the primates in their method of acquiring food. They do not climb or move about in search of food, rather, they cling onto a tree branch where they are able to turn their incredibly mobile heads to view their entire surroundings, to detect potential prey. They then use their very powerful, long hind legs to pounce on the prey, which they catch with their front paws. The padded fingertips and claws provide the grip that is essential when landing and handling the prey. They are able to catch flying prey, such as small birds and bats in mid-air.

Tarsiers are relatively vocal animals. They use a range of different calls for different situations. The vocalizations depend on the species, and can be useful to identify tarsier species from one another.

Reproduction of the Tarsier

Tarsiers become sexually mature at about 1-2 years of age, and tend to breed all year round. Once mated, the female has a pregnancy (gestation) lasting approximately 180 days (6 months), after which she usually gives birth to just a single baby. Baby tarsiers are precocial, which means they are very well developed at birth. They are born with their eyes open, and have all their fur. In addition, baby tarsiers are able to climb within a day of birth. The mother weans the baby at about 2 months of age. When moving about in the trees, the mother carries the baby in her mouth, or the baby clings to the mother’s fur.