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MSNBC.com, November 18, 2008

Real-life Furbys rediscovered
Some experts feared that Indonesia's pygmy tarsier was extinct
By Alan Boyle

A primate species that looks like a living, breathing version of the Furby electronic toy has been found alive in the forested highlands of an Indonesian island for the first time in more than 70 years, scientists announced Tuesday.

Three specimens of the pygmy tarsier, a nocturnal creature about the size of a small mouse, were trapped and tracked this summer on Mount Rorekatimbo in Lore Lindu National Park in Central Sulawesi, Texas A&M University reported.

Texas A&M anthropologist Sharon Gursky-Doyen, leader of the expedition, said the tarsiers were found on mountainsides above 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) in elevation, amid damp, dangerous terrain. "I actually broke my fibula walking around there," she told msnbc.com.

Pygmy tarsiers rank among the rarest of the many tarsier species in Asia and the Pacific — and in fact some primatologists had written them off as extinct.

They have the distinctive, big-eyed look often associated with Furbys, gremlin-like talking toys that were popular in the late 1990s. Compared with the robotic Furbys, however, the real animals' dimensions are seriously downsized: They typically measure less than 4 inches (105 mm) from head to tail, with most of that length being tail. They weigh less than 2 ounces. And unlike Furbys, they hardly ever vocalize.

Before this year, only three specimens had ever been collected, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Two were found in 1916 and 1930. The third was a dead pygmy tarsier that Indonesian scientists found in a rat trap on Mount Rorekatimbo in 2000. That motivated primatologists to intensify their search for a live specimen of the species, "but none of them were able to find it," Gursky-Doyen said.

Gursky-Doyen specializes in the behavior and conservation of nonhuman primates, and has been trapping other species of tarsiers for years. "I truly believe that the difference is my skill in trapping," she said.

She and her colleagues deployed about 276 mist nets on the mountain's forested slopes to capture the three pygmy tarsiers. They then attached radio collars to the animals' necks and monitored their activity for weeks. Gursky-Doyen said she and one of her graduate students, Nanda Grow, are drafting a research paper based on their observations.

There are plenty of questions to be answered: For example, unlike nearly all other primate species, pygmy tarsiers have claws instead of nails on their fingers. Other clawed primates, such as marmosets and tamarins, are thought to have adapted to grip onto trees or dig out insects for food. Why did pygmy tarsiers follow a similar evolutionary path?

Unlike other tarsier species — including the species that live farther down the mountainside — the pygmy tarsiers don't seem to call to each other or mark their territory with a musky scent. "How are pygmy tarsiers communicating with one another if they're not doing it through vocalizations or scent marking?" Gursky-Doyen asked.

One clue came when the scientists saw a tarsier open its mouth in the wild. "It looked like it might be vocalizing, but I couldn't hear anything," Gursky-Doyen said. She speculated that the creature might have been calling in frequencies that couldn't be heard by humans, but were well-suited to cut through the cacophony of forest rainfall.

Gursky-Doyen said she hoped the latest find would put added pressure on government officials to protect habitat within the national park.

"At present, the national park is over 2,000 square kilometers [in area], but there are 60 villages of people living within that park," she explained. She said some of those settlements are closing in on the mountain habitat frequented by the reclusive tarsiers and other, yet-to-be-discovered species.

"As the villages get closer and closer, there's going to be more disruption," she said.

Gursky-Doyen’s research was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Conservation International Primate Action Fund, Primate Conservation Inc. and Texas A&M.

© 2008 msnbc.com

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton