What’s a Primate?

Maybe you’ve heard the term “Primate” before. Did you ever wonder what, exactly, it means? Well, we’re here to give you the scoop!

Primates are an order of mammals that includes many that you might be familiar with, including monkeys and apes. Other primates include tarsiers, lorises, and lemurs. What brings these mammals together under the same umbrella? 

Primates have a lot of things in common with one another: they have large brains for their body size, they tend to depend on their vision (as opposed to most other mammals who rely on sense of smell), and they have very well-developed hands, often with opposable thumbs. This particular feature, in which the thumb finger is placed apart and opposite from the other fingers, is essential for grasping and handling items.

Do these traits sound familiar? If so, it could be because all of these characteristics are found in humans. Do you know why? Because humans are a type of primate!

 

The Types of Primates

Primates are loosely arranged into three sub-groups: the “prosimians” (lemurs, lorises and tarsiers), the “monkeys” (Old World monkeys of Asia and Africa, and New World monkeys of Central and South America) and “apes” (orangutans, gorillas, gibbons, chimpanzees, and humans).

However, these groups are not the most scientific way to classify primates, as tarsiers are actually more closely related to monkeys and apes than they are to lemurs and lorises. Likewise, Old World monkeys are more closely related to apes than to New World monkeys. Let’s take a closer look at how to tell these primates apart from one another:

 

  • Lemurs (Superfamily Lemuroidea) – Lemurs are only found on the island of Madagascar, off the Eastern coast of Africa. They are usually small, with very long tails, large eyes, and a snout that is more pointed than most other primate types.

 

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A wide variety of Primates from the Primates TOOB

Ring-tailed Lemur

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  • Lorises and Galagos (Superfamily Lorisoidea) – Galagos (also called bush babies) are quite lemur-like, with large eyes and pointed snouts. However, their tails aren’t quite as long, and they have large, bat-like ears. Lorises on the other hand have very small ears and very short tails, and their fur is quite woolly. Both lorises and galagos live in Africa, though some members of the loris family are also found in Asia.

 

  • Tarsiers (Superfamily Tarsioidea) – Tarsiers are small primates with very large eyes for their size. Sometimes, their eyes may be as large (or larger) than their brains! They have very long fingers and toes, and long, thin tails. Tarsiers are the only primates that eat entirely meat: their diet consists mostly of insects, and they are also known to eat reptiles, birds and even bats. Other primates are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Tarsiers live on islands in Southeastern Asia.

 

  • New World Monkeys (Superfamily Ceboidea) – These primates are small to medium sized, and have long, prehensile tails like lemurs that help them grasp trees branches. They have flat faces with sideways-facing nostrils and spend most of their time in trees. They are found in Central and South America.

 

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Squirrel Monkey (a New World Monkey)

Howler Monkey (a New World Monkey)

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  • Old World Monkeys (Superfamily Cercopitehcidae) – These primates have longer snouts than their New World relatives, and their nostrils face forward. They also have shorter tails that are not prehensile. They’re usually larger than New World monkeys, and many species live completely on the ground, though some are still tree-dwelling. They are found in Africa and Asia.

 

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Male Mandrill (an Old World Monkey)

Gibbon (a "Lesser Ape")

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  • Apes (Superfamily Hominoidea) – This is the most advanced group of primates, usually divided into the “Lesser Apes” (gibbons) and “Great Apes” (gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans). Apes have no tails, and they have a wider range of motion in their shoulders than other primates. Gibbons are smaller and mostly dwell in trees, resembling monkeys except for their lack of a tail. Great Apes are much larger and tend to spend more time on the ground.
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Chimpanzee (a "Great Ape")

Bornean Orangutan (a "Great Ape")

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  • Humans – Humans are actually included among the apes in the Superfamily Hominoidea, but are usually discussed separately. Humans have much less hair than other primates and are the only species that are fully bidepal (walking on two legs). The Great Apes originated in Africa and Asia, but human beings have spread throughout the entire world.
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Humans from the People at Work Designer TOOB

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Primate Intelligence – How Smart are Primates?

Primates are among the most intelligent mammals. They have complex social structures, and can recognize their relatives and other members of their own species. Some can also learn to use tools to hunt and collect food. Certain primates, such as chimpanzees, have also been shown to use problem-solving skills to obtain food that is out of reach. Some apes, including chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, have been taught to communicate with humans via sign language.

The most intelligent primates are humans. Human beings exhibit the ability to learn, solve complex problems, use language to communicate, and apply logic and reason to concepts.

 

Primate Conservation – Are Primates Endangered?

There are hundreds of species of primates alive today, and more are being discovered all the time. In the last 20 years, over 35 new primate species have been discovered. It can be difficult to get information on the population numbers of so many species, but we do know that over 100 species are threatened with extinction.

Many species of lemur are currently critically endangered, with only a few hundred individuals of the species left in some cases. Given their already small range on the island of Madagascar, it doesn’t take much interference to cause serious damage to lemur populations.

 

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Snub Nosed Monkey, an endangered Old World Monkey

Silverback Gorilla, an endangered Great Ape

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Other primate species that are considered endangered include the Eastern gorilla, the Bornean orangutan, the golden snub-nosed monkey, the lar gibbon, and the chimpanzee, just to name a few. The biggest threat to many primates is the destruction of their habitat, as forests are cleared for lumber, or to make room for farmland. Some primates are also being overhunted for their meat.

 

How Can We Help Primates?

There are many organizations dedicated to preserving these intelligent creatures, including Primate Conservation, Inc. and the Jane Goodall Institute, just to name a few. These organizations are fighting tirelessly to try to halt the rapid decline of primate species, and hopefully with the efforts of these groups and others, we will someday be able to appreciate these mammals without worrying that they will disappear forever.

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