Even wildlife experts can’t resist a proper eyeroll-inducing pun.
On May the Fourth, the unofficial Star Wars holiday (“May the Fourth be with you”), a conservation group dropped some exciting news about an animals that looks oddly similar to Yoda, the pint-sized Jedi master.
Scientists with Conservation International discovered two new species of tarsiers on an island in Indonesia, they announced on Thursday. The tiny nocturnal primates, which weigh only as much as a stick of butter, have enormous eyes, big ears resembling oyster shells, and super long tails.
The findings raise the number of known tarsier species to 11 in that region, according to a new study in the journal Primate Conservation. It also boosts Indonesia’s total primate count to 80 species, giving the Asian nation the third-highest count behind Brazil and Madagascar.
Myron Shekelle, the study’s lead author and one of the world’s top tarsier experts, has previously speculated that the animals were the inspiration for Yoda, though many people are skeptical of that claim.
“I work closely with a guy who knows Harrison Ford, and Harrison Ford of course knows [George] Lucas, so we’ve been trying to get the actual answer for a while,” he told WIRED in 2015.
What we know for sure, however, is that tarsiers have the largest eyes relative to their body size of any mammal on Earth. These long-legged primates can also rotate their necks a full 180 degrees in either direction, similar to owls. This makes them either cute or kind of creepy — the verdict is still out.
Tarsiers can also leap as high as 10 feet in a single bound. And, rare among primates, they are completely carnivorous, preferring live insects to plants and fruits.
The tarsier discovery, while very “exciting,” underscores just how much we have yet to learn about primates and the ecosystems they inhabit, said Russ Mittermeier, a primatologist with Conservation International and one of the study’s co-authors.
“If we don’t know our closest-living relatives that well, imagine how weak we are on the rest of biodiversity,” he said by phone. “There’s so much more research that’s needed.”
The two new tarsier species were named for prominent primate scientists. Tarsius supriatnai honors Jatna Supriatna, a biology professor at the University of Indonesia and a former director of Conservation International in Indonesia. Tarsius spectrumgurskyae was named for Sharon Gursky, a tarsier expert at Texas A&M University.
While the two new tarsiers appear similar to each other and other tarsiers, each has distinct vocalizations and genetics that isolate them as individual species, the scientists said.
Tarsiers, like many other animals throughout Indonesia, are facing a “conservation crisis,” Mittermeier said. The country of about 258 million people has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, which is driven largely by industrial agriculture and palm oil production.
On Sulawesi, the island where the two new tarsier species were found, much of the tropical rainforest has been cleared for corn plantations. On other islands, the habitats of animals unique to the region — including orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and tigers — are also disappearing as farmers burn trees and drain peat swamps to make way for African oil palm trees and food crops.
Shekelle, who is also a researcher at Western Washington University, said scientists have likely underestimated the true diversity of wildlife species on Sulawesi by “an order of magnitude or more.”
As a result, when habitat loss causes one species to go extinct, “The actual number of extinctions might be 10 times greater than that,” he said in a statement.