Inferred L/M cone opsin polymorphism of ancestral tarsiers sheds dim light on the origin of anthropoid primates

Amanda D. Melin, Yuka Matsushita, Gillian L. Moritz, Nathaniel J. Dominy, Shoji Kawamura


Tarsiers are small nocturnal primates with a long history of fuelling debate on the origin and evolution of anthropoid primates. Recently, the discovery of M and L opsin genes in two sister species, Tarsius bancanus (Bornean tarsier) and Tarsius syrichta (Philippine tarsier), respectively, was interpreted as evidence of an ancestral long-to-middle (L/M) opsin polymorphism, which, in turn, suggested a diurnal or cathemeral (arrhythmic) activity pattern. This view is compatible with the hypothesis that stem tarsiers were diurnal; however, a reversion to nocturnality during the Middle Eocene, as evidenced by hyper-enlarged orbits, predates the divergence of T. bancanus and T. syrichta in the Late Miocene. Taken together, these findings suggest that some nocturnal tarsiers possessed high-acuity trichromatic vision, a concept that challenges prevailing views on the adaptive origins of the anthropoid visual system. It is, therefore, important to explore the plausibility and antiquity of trichromatic vision in the genus Tarsius. Here, we show that Sulawesi tarsiers (Tarsius tarsier), a phylogenetic out-group of Philippine and Bornean tarsiers, have an L opsin gene that is more similar to the L opsin gene of T. syrichta than to the M opsin gene of T. bancanus in non-synonymous nucleotide sequence. This result suggests that an L/M opsin polymorphism is the ancestral character state of crown tarsiers and raises the possibility that many hallmarks of the anthropoid visual system evolved under dim (mesopic) light conditions. This interpretation challenges the persistent nocturnal–diurnal dichotomy that has long informed debate on the origin of anthropoid primates.


    • Received February 1, 2013.
    • Accepted February 28, 2013.
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