When you’re talking about primates, you’re discussing one of the most diverse orders in the animal kingdom.
With over 300 species in existence, primates are actually the third-most diverse order of all mammals behind only rodents and bats.
In fact, everyone reading this information is a primate, as humans make up the largest primate species in the world. However, when most of us think of primates, we tend to think of our closest genetic relatives, which include apes, chimpanzees and mandrills.
Where Do Most Nonhuman Primates Live?
Primates are broken down into Old World and New World, based on where they’re found. They prefer heavily forested areas, making the rain forests of South America and Africa ideal climates.
Smaller, more slender primates tend to be found in the New World, with most of them living in the Americas, including South America and Latin America. These monkeys lack opposable thumbs and use their tails to grasp onto tree branches. Squirrel, howler and spider monkeys are generally part of this group.
By contrast, Old World primates, including baboons, apes, gorillas and other larger species, make their homes in the forests of Africa and Asia and lack tails that can grab onto branches. Instead, these primates use their opposable thumbs to get themselves where they need to go. They resemble humans more so than New World species.
How Do Certain Primates Differ?
Besides the lack of a tail, apes and gibbons have shoulders like humans, allowing them to swing from branch to branch. Conversely, monkeys lack that ability, which is why most rely on their tails to move among trees.
Another major difference is in their bone structures and brain sizes. Apes and similar species have larger brains than monkeys, which allows them to communicate in ways that monkeys cannot. Only humans have the ability to speak, but apes and chimpanzees can communicate through a form of sign language.
What Features Distinguish Primates?
The most distinguishing feature of many primates is opposable thumbs; however, not all share this trait. One trait that is shared is their fingernails, which are unique to primates. While some do possess claw-like nails, these are flatter and not at all like the claws found on other mammals, including cats and bears.
Primates also have a larger brain than other mammals, and it’s separated in a unique way that helps with different visual areas, allowing for more complex thought than other mammals.
What do Primates Eat?
If you’ve paid much attention to pop culture depictions, you know that monkeys and chimpanzees are well known for their love of bananas. Bananas are a part of many primates’ diets, but they’re far from the only foods they enjoy. It’s common for them to forage and eat tree bark, flowers and nuts native to their habitat.
In fact, scientists have speculated that primates’ brains evolved in large because of a need for them to get to fruits that were harder to reach but played an essential role in their diets. For some primates, like the orangutan, fruit makes up over half of everything they eat.
Most primates are omnivores, consuming both plants and meat. However, this has led some species to their downfall, as chimpanzees have hunted red colobus monkeys in Africa to near extinction.
Are Primates Endangered?
No primate is more threatened than the Hainan gibbon, which is currently found only in one remote colony in China and has a population of just 25 in the world. Like many other animals, habitat loss and the threat of poachers has drastically wiped out much of its population.
But the Hainan gibbon is far from the only species that faces the possibility of extinction. In fact, many primates, including gorillas, lemurs and howler monkeys, are endangered for the same reasons as the Hainan gibbon.
Currently, half of all primates are endangered because of big game hunters and the exotic pet trade, which leads primates to a life of captivity in a location they were never meant to call home. King Kong might make for an entertaining movie, but that’s all it was ever meant to be. If nonhuman primates are to survive, their homes need better protection.
Primates in Pop Culture
Speaking of King Kong, he’s by far the most obvious example of a primate in pop culture. The giant gorilla has been on the scene since the 1930s when the first movie was produced, and it glorifies gorilla-climbing capabilities by sending King Kong up the tallest structure of its time, the Empire State Building in New York.
Since that time, large gorillas have been revered on the big screen and cartoons. One episode of The Simpsons had Homer pulling Bart aside for Big Gorilla Week on the family’s favorite movie channel. Other examples include The Jungle Book, where the orangutans of King Louie make life a nightmare for Mowgli and his friends, and The Lion King’s mandrill Rafiki, Swahili for friend, serves as Mufasa and Simba’s trusted adviser.
Other examples of primates in pop culture include the Phoenix Suns’ mascot, known simply as the Gorilla. While gorillas have little to do with Arizona (as primates don’t choose to live in arid climates such as deserts), Gorilla has become a fan favorite for his acrobatics.
Besides being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, primates also play a large role in helping their ecosystems survive and thrive. It would be a true loss if the shrinking of their habitats leads to the disappearance of some of these species from our planet.