Meet the Primate Family
Primates are a group of mammals that include prosimians, monkeys, and apes. Humans are primates, too. We are a type of ape. Most primates have hands and feet that can grasp, and many have tails. There are about 230 primate species. Most primates are found in tropical environments. The only great exception to this is humans. We live all over the planet. Almost all primates eat both plants andanimals. Most primates are threatened or endangered.
The Big Three
Primates belong to one of three general groups: prosimians, monkeys, and apes.
Prime Locations for Primates
Most nonhuman primates live in tropical and subtropical areas of thenew world and old world. Most primates live an arboreal lifestyle, that is, they travel, eat, and sleep in the tops of trees. Even the larger apes, like chimpanzees and orangutans, usually sleep in leafy nests they make in trees. The most notable exceptions to this behavior are gorillas and humans. Both are ground dwellers.
What Sets Primates Apart
Humans are the only primates that are strictly bipedal, meaning they walk upright on two feet. Humans live all over the planet in almost every environment.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
As primates evolved over the past 50-60 million years, two important things happened. 1) Their faces flattened and the eyes moved to the front of the head, giving thembinocular vision. 2) They developed hands with separate fingers and opposable thumbs. This allowed them to grasp and hold on to branches and other objects. These two important developments make primates very different from all other mammals.
One Baby at a Time
Like other mammals, primates have live babies who feed on their mother’s milk when they are young. Primate babies are born after a relatively long period of gestation. An advantage of a longer gestation is that primate babies are born more developed. This gives them a greater chance of survival. Primates usually give birth to only one baby at a time. Because mother primates can devote all their care to one baby, more babies survive to adulthood.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Orangutans are great apes that live in tropical rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Mother orangutans teach their babies many important skills, like how to climb.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Baby primates learn to forage for food by watching their parents. They also learn important skills like how to make a nest and how to climb. Young primates are consideredjuveniles until they are ready to have babies of their own. Juveniles are often smaller than adults. Sometimes they have different colored fur or markings.
Adults of All Sizes
Adult primates come in many different sizes. The pygmy marmoset is the smallest and weighs only70 g. The largest primate is the gorilla. It may weigh as much as 181 kg! Primate species live for different lengths of time, depending on their size. The mouse lemur is very small and lives about eight years. Chimpanzees, which are quite large, can live as long as some humans.
A Primate's Primary Parts
Sharp eyes, good hands, intelligence, and the ability to beopportunistic food finders have made primates very good at adapting to their environment. Every species exhibits some type of bipedalism, and all primates have binocular vision. This type of vision helps primates judge distances when they grab for things and jump from branch to branch.
Click on the picture of a primate to learn more about their special anatomy and adaptations.
A Day in the Life of a Primate
Almost all primate species are diurnal. They play, groom, and eat during daylight hours. Primates are very social animals and spend most of their time interacting with other members of their family group. Adaptations to this social lifestyle include complex vocalizations, chirps, whistles and calls, and displays.
Grooming is another one of the most common social interactions. Grooming helps keep group members clean and also fills their social needs and builds ties. The few primate species that are less social are those that are also nocturnal.
A Fruitful Diet
Most primate species are omnivores. They like to eat plants and other animals. Flowers, seeds, and fruits are the favorite foods of many different primate species.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Most primate species are omnivores and like to eat many different things including fruit, leaves, insects, larvae, and other animals. Despite being omnivores, most species eat mostly fruit and other plants. Some species, like the orangutans of Borneo, mainly eat fruit. Others, like howler monkeys, eat mostly leaves and have a special digestive system to process them. Scientists think that primates prefer to eat fruit and plants, because it is much easier to get plant foods than hunt for moving animals.
Primates and People
Because people are also primates, that may be what makes other primates so interesting to study. Primate species are a favorite of many people and are highly intelligent. Some of them even use tools to get at their favorite food.
Not a Good Choice for a Pet
Some people think primate species might make good pets because primates are lively and clever. However, primates need a lot of space to run, climb, and play. They can make terrible messes when kept incaptivity. Despite this knowledge, the illegal pet trade has contributed significantly to the endangerment of many primate species.
Chimpanzees are intelligent great apes that are often seen using tools to get at some of their favorite foods. This chimp is fishing for termites with a stick.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
According to scientists, 10% of all primates are acutely endangered and at risk of becoming extinct in the next 20 years. Most other primate species are at great risk.Deforestation is a major threat. It destroys primate habitat and is a significant cause of endangerment of some primate species. Legal and illegal hunting of primates for meat has also caused primate population to decrease.
People who are concerned about primates are working hard to create and pass laws that will protect primates and the forests they live in. Other conservation efforts are being made at research facilities and parks like the Wanariset Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Perhaps through conservation and habitat protection, the primates and their forest homes can be preserved.
ite foods. This chimp is fishing for termites with a stick.
ite foods. This chimp is fishing for termites with a stick.