Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Found: A Previously-Thought Extinct Species

This gremlin look-alike has been rediscovered by scientists on a remote island in Indonesia. Presumed extinct until 2000, when they were rediscovered (as most are) completely by accident. Two scientist studying rats accidentally trapped and killed a pygmy tarsier. Previous to this, the last known specimen had been collected in 1921.

Recently, a team led by Sharon Gursky-Doyen of Texas A&M University captured three pygmy tarsiers. Gursky-Doyen’s team spent two months using 276 mist nets to capture the gremlin-like creatures as part of the survey they were conducting of Mount Rore Katimbo in Lore Lindu National Park on the Island of Sulawesi. (Mist nets are very fine nets especially designed to capture small birds or mammals with minimal stress to the species being captured. The nets are so fine the birds or small mammals cannot see them.)

These three individuals were outfitted with radio collars and will be tracked in an effort to gain a better understanding of their habits, movements, and other valuable information that may be used to help re-establish a thriving population. One other individual had been seen; but, unfortunately, evaded capture.

Pygmy tarsiers are extremely tiny weighing only 50 grams or 1.73 oz. They are among the smallest and rarest primates in the world. The biggest difference between them and their nearest cousin, the tarsier, is the size. The other is the fingers. The pygmy tarsier has claws instead of nails. Gursky-Doyen believes this to be an adaptation to its mossy habitat 7,000 – 8,000 feet (2,100 -2,440 meters) above sea level. She hopes this discovery will encourage the Indonesian government to enact stronger levels of protection for the mountainous park which is in danger of being encroached upon, exploited and deforested.

Sulawesi has been largely ignored by the conservationist community and its rich biodiversity is relatively unknown by scientists. Sulawesi has a high level of endemism: more than 60% of its mammals and more than 1/3 of its birds are found nowhere else on the planet (and those are just the ones we know about). They also have a large number of endemic freshwater fish and other animals.

Scientist believe that at one time Indonesia was once part of both Asia and Australia. They believe that fragments broke off from both continents and floated together to form the islands of Indonesia. One half of Indonesia has species that are more common to Asia while the other half has species that are more common to Australia. Of course, this created some very interesting changes and adaptations to the non-human inhabitants.

Close to the Wallace Line, in particular, (the line that naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, determined separated Indonesia into two distinct parts) the biodiversity created was so unusual, it inspired Alfred Russel Wallace to propose his own theory of natural selection thereby forcing Charles Darwin to publish his masterwork, The Origin of Species, before its time.

The neglect by conservationists, the lack of familiarity with Sulawesi’s biodiversity by scientists and the total lack of protection of its rainforests by the Indonesian government has been costly—Sulawesi's forests have fast been converted for agriculture, felled by loggers and degraded by miners. A new study, published in the journal Biotropica showed that roughly 80 percent of the island's habitats have been degraded or destroyed.

It may not be long before this cute little guy really is extinct.

To view a video of a tarsier (the grown-up cousin of the pygmy tarsier) see:

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