Yoda-like tarsiers are our distant cousins: Cute creatures share the same branch of the evolutionary tree as humans

  • A study has revealed the carnivorous primates are our distant relatives
  • Their DNA shows they are closer to the group containing apes than lemurs
  • But they also have a large number of genes changing at different rates 
  • Researchers say this could help to study human diseases, with further genome studies to help protect the animals in the wild

They may look like they’ve had one too many espressos, but a group of small, wide-eyed primates from the Philippines are our distant cousins.

Scientists have found that the tarsier - a small Yoda-like creature which can fit in the palm of your hand- evolved on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as humans.

By looking at their DNA, they revealed the pint-sized primates are related to monkeys, great apes, and humans.

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A study has revealed the tarsier (pictured), a small carnivorous creature which can fit in the palm of your hand, evolved on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as humans

A study has revealed the tarsier (pictured), a small carnivorous creature which can fit in the palm of your hand, evolved on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as humans

TARSIERS: UNIQUE PRIMATES

The tarsier is one of the stranger members of the primate family. 

They can be found hugging the trees in the jungles of southeast Asia, using their long long fingers to grip and their huge eyes to spot their prey. 

Living off insects, lizards, rodents and birds, they are the only exclusively carnivorous primate. 

In addition to their satellite-dish like eyes, they are able to use ultrasound to their prey through the forest at night.

A longer ankle none - the tarsus, from which they are named - enables them to make sudden leaps between the trees when needed. 

Found hugging the trees of Southeast Asia, tarsiers have large eyes and long delicate fingers to catch insects, birds and lizards.

While they are classed as primates, they have been hard to place, with biologists believing they belonged to a separate group of animals which split off from the common ancestor to monkeys and apes millions of years ago.

They have teeth and jaws closer to ‘wet-nosed’ primates like lemurs or the slow loris, but their eyes and noses are more similar to ‘dry-nosed’ primates like monkeys and humans.

But analysing the strange little animal’s genome has revealed it is actually in the same class as dry nose primates.

We sequenced the tarsier not only to determine where they fit in primate evolution, but because their physiology, anatomy and feeding behaviour are very unique,’ explained Wesley Warren, a geneticist at the University of Washington and senior author of the study.

The team found a number of ‘jumping genes’, or transposons, which can move about in the DNA.

When the tarsier’s jumping genes were compared against with bushbabies, squirrel monkeys and humans, they were more similar to the latter two – which are dry nosed primate.

While tarsiers are classed as primates, they have been hard to place, with biologists believing they belonged to a separate group of animals which split off from the common ancestor to monkeys and apes

While tarsiers are classed as primates, they have been hard to place, with biologists believing they belonged to a separate group of animals which split off from the common ancestor to monkeys and apes

The tiny forest primates could resemble Master Yoda from the hit Star Wars franchise

The tiny forest primates could resemble Master Yoda from the hit Star Wars franchise

ARE THEY UNDER THREAT? 

The latest analysis also revealed that the tarsier may be going through a population decline, with the animals lacking in genetic diversity.

By sampling DNA from more tarsier species and from individuals in more populations, scientists will be able to properly assess the genetic health of the animals

'A population with a greater amount of diversity should be more capable of surviving changes in its environment," explained geneticist Wesley Warren.

'It will help us determine how endangered they really are so we can implement measures to better protect them.'

‘Jumping genes help us understand how species diverged from one another over millions of years ago,’ said Jürgen Schmitz, from the University of Münster in Germany.

‘The tarsier genome is a modern archive of evolutionary changes that led to humans,’ he added.

In addition to giving the animals a new home on the evolutionary tree, the analysis has also enabled scientists to delve into their DNA to find the genes which make them so unique.

Comparing the tarsier's genomes with those of other primates, revealed 192 genes that are changing at a much different rate.

The researchers believe these genetic differences – which regulate things such as growth and development –could help to explain its physical characteristics, such as its huge eyes and lengthy ankle bone (tarsus) for leaping, which are unique among dry nose primates.

While tarsiers are classed as primates, they have been hard to place, with biologists believing they belong to a separate group of animals, the tarsiiformes, which split off from the common ancestor to monkeys and apes millions of years ago (pictured)

While tarsiers are classed as primates, they have been hard to place, with biologists believing they belong to a separate group of animals, the tarsiiformes, which split off from the common ancestor to monkeys and apes millions of years ago (pictured)

What’s more, they add that studying these genes could provide a window into human disease.

‘The tarsier genes that display unique alterations can give us a clue into human diseases involving the same genes,’ added Dr Warren.

‘If an amino acid has been uniquely changed and it is putatively associated with the tarsier's novel musculature, maybe it's an important part of the protein and worthy of a closer look when linked to human disease.’  

The findings are published in Nature Communications

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