Imagine you are one of those rarities, one who tarries when the air is starriest, who leaps at dinner when the night’s dark is tarriest: to see in such Tartarean tenebrity would require a stare of the most wide-lidded kind… lids round as riatas, nearly diametric irises, and eyeballs the size of… well, your brain.
Enter the tarsier: a cute animal with acute night vision, thanks to eyeballs the size of its brain – yes, literally. It is a small, furry thing, terribly cute (though I’m sure Bucky, the cat in the comic strip Get Fuzzy, would find few things tastier than a tarsier); it has wiiiiiiiiiide eyes and looooooooong fingers, and very long feet. Relative to its body size, that is: their head and body are 4 to 6 inches long together, while their feet are about twice that, and the same for their ratlike tails. Tarsiers are probably the smallest primates in the world.
Primates? Yes, that’s right. The same gang as includes monkeys, apes, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (there’s an Anglican pun in there). But tarsiers are outliers, and perhaps tardier than most in evolving, though clearly they have evolved some features that suit their lifestyle. They’re night owls, so to speak – but not partiers; they’re terribly introverted, and if you come face to teeny, cute, little face with one it will probably stare in that freaked-out-on-acid way at you and keep eating – see one doing exactly that at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuH48JW8XrU.
And, uh… what is that it’s eating? Oh, just a cricket. Quite a handful, isn’t it?
A cricket? Ewww!
Yup. These little buggers love those little bugs. Just bite through ’em like a candy bar. In fact, tarsiers are the only primates known to be purely carnivorous. They don’t eat vegetables at all. Banana schmanana, gimme a cricket. They also eat other insects, and also birds, snakes, lizards, and bats – though I’m sure they need to be careful that their eyes aren’t bigger than their stomachs. So to speak. They catch their food by jumping at it – they might bag a bird while leaping from tree to tree.
Do they begin to seem a titch less cute, perhaps a bit creepier, like Gollum, maybe? Well, they’re still furry little things with big eyes, and no matter how adorable any creature is, nature is red in tooth and claw. If you want harmless, go grow a pet carrot. Which, by the way, will be safe from any tarsiers in your neighbourhood. Which is only a concern if you live in the Philippines, Borneo, or thereabouts.
And about this name, now. Tarsier. Its pronunciation doesn’t have that much in common with that of Taser or brasier; rather, it’s just like “tar seer.” And whence comes this word? Its anagrammatical potential is mere good luck; it comes to us thanks to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, an 18th-century French naturalist who was really the progenitor of the study of evolution, though he did not take it as far as Darwin (he considered but rejected the idea of humans and apes having a common origin, for instance). Needing a name for this little critter he had encountered (and not thinking to ask what it might be called in, say, Malay), he focused on a salient part of its anatomy.
That’s right, its very long feet. The tarsus, after all, is that part of your foot between heel and toe (I will resist a pun on the sole of tarsus and the road to Damascus, as I’m sure many people would miss it, and others might be a-Pauled). The word comes from Greek ταρσός tarsos, which names exactly that same part of the foot.
Tarsos also means the rim of the eyelid. Hmm, would you look at that – it’s as though it was made for this creature, or vice versa.