Learning Outcomes

  • Identify characteristics of primates
  • Describe the evolutionary history of primates

Order Primates of class Mammalia includes lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans. Non-human primates live primarily in the tropical or subtropical regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. They range in size from the mouse lemur at 30 grams (1 ounce) to the mountain gorilla at 200 kilograms (441 pounds). The characteristics and evolution of primates are of particular interest to us as they allow us to understand the evolution of our own species.

Characteristics of Primates

All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees, as they all descended from tree-dwellers. This arboreal heritage of primates has resulted in hands and feet that are adapted for climbing, or brachiation (swinging through trees using the arms). These adaptations include, but are not limited to: 1) a rotating shoulder joint, 2) a big toe that is widely separated from the other toes (except humans) and thumbs sufficiently separated from fingers to allow for gripping branches, and 3) stereoscopic vision, two overlapping fields of vision from the eyes, which allows for the perception of depth and gauging distance. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger than those of most other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one offspring per pregnancy, and a trend toward holding the body upright.

Image depicts a Tarsier in a tree.

Figure 1. A Philippine tarsier. This tarsier, Carlito syrichta, is one of the smallest primates—about 5 inches long, from nose to the base of the tail. The tail is not shown, but is about twice the length of the body. Note the large eyes, each of which is about the same size as the animal’s brain, and the long hind legs. (credit: mtoz (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Order Primates is divided into two groups: Strepsirrhini (“turned-nosed”) and Haplorhini (“simple-nosed”) primates. Strepsirrhines, also called the wet-nosed primates, include prosimians like the bush babies and pottos of Africa, the lemurs of Madagascar, and the lorises of Southeast Asia. Haplorhines, or dry-nosed primates, include tarsiers (Figure 1) and simians (New World monkeys, Old World monkeys, apes, and humans). In general, strepsirrhines tend to be nocturnal, have larger olfactory centers in the brain, and exhibit a smaller size and smaller brain than anthropoids. Haplorhines, with a few exceptions, are diurnal, and depend more on their vision. Another interesting difference between the strepsirrhines and haplorhines is that strepsirrhines have the enzymes for making vitamin C, while haplorhines have to get it from their food.

Evolution of Primates

The first primate-like mammals are referred to as proto-primates. They were roughly similar to squirrels and tree shrews in size and appearance. The existing fossil evidence (mostly from North Africa) is very fragmented. These proto-primates remain largely mysterious creatures until more fossil evidence becomes available. Although genetic evidence suggests that primates diverged from other mammals about 85 MYA, the oldest known primate-like mammals with a relatively robust fossil record date to about 65 MYA. Fossils like the proto-primate Plesiadapis (although some researchers do not agree that Plesiadapis was a proto-primate) had some features of the teeth and skeleton in common with true primates. They were found in North America and Europe in the Cenozoic and went extinct by the end of the Eocene.

The first true primates date to about 55 MYA in the Eocene epoch. They were found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. These early primates resembled present-day prosimians such as lemurs. Evolutionary changes continued in these early primates, with larger brains and eyes, and smaller muzzles being the trend. By the end of the Eocene epoch, many of the early prosimian species went extinct due either to cooler temperatures or competition from the first monkeys.

The photo shows a black monkey with its mouth open in a howl.

Figure 2. The howler monkey is native to Central and South America. It makes a call that sounds like a lion roaring. (credit: Xavi Talleda)

Anthropoid monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene epoch. By 40 million years ago, evidence indicates that monkeys were present in the New World (South America) and the Old World (Africa and Asia). New World monkeys are also called Platyrrhini—a reference to their broad noses (Figure 2). Old World monkeys are called Catarrhini—a reference to their narrow, downward-pointed noses. There is still quite a bit of uncertainty about the origins of the New World monkeys. At the time the platyrrhines arose, the continents of South American and Africa had drifted apart. Therefore, it is thought that monkeys arose in the Old World and reached the New World either by drifting on log rafts or by crossing land bridges. Due to this reproductive isolation, New World monkeys and Old World monkeys underwent separate adaptive radiations over millions of years. The New World monkeys are all arboreal, whereas Old World monkeys include both arboreal and ground-dwelling species. The arboreal habits of the New World monkeys are reflected in the possession of prehensile or grasping tails by most species. The tails of Old World monkeys are never prehensile and are often reduced, and some species have ischial callosities—thickened patches of skin on their seats.

Apes evolved from the catarrhines in Africa midway through the Cenozoic, approximately 25 million years ago. Apes are generally larger than monkeys and they do not possess a tail. All apes are capable of moving through trees, although many species spend most their time on the ground. When walking quadrupedally, monkeys walk on their palms, while apes support the upper body on their knuckles. Apes are more intelligent than monkeys, and they have larger brains relative to body size. The apes are divided into two groups. The lesser apes comprise the family Hylobatidae, including gibbons and siamangs. The great apes include the genera Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos) Gorilla (gorillas), Pongo (orangutans), and Homo (humans) (Figure 3).

Image depicts various skeletons of great ape primates, including gibbon, chimp, and human. The skeletons have significant similarities, but their posture and structures differ. Most apes have much longer arms relative to their height than do humans. Only humans and gibbons have an upright posture. And gorillas, chimps, and orangutans have much larger vertebrae (relative to their size) in the neck and upper back.

Figure 3. Primate skeletons. All great apes have a similar skeletal structure. (credit: modification of work by Tim Vickers)

The very arboreal gibbons are smaller than the great apes; they have low sexual dimorphism (that is, the sexes are not markedly different in size), although in some species, the sexes differ in color; and they have relatively longer arms used for swinging through trees (Figure 4a). Two species of orangutan are native to different islands in Indonesia: Borneo (P. pygmaeus) and Sumatra (P. abelii). A third orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, was reported in 2017 from the Batang Toru forest in Sumatra. Orangutans are arboreal and solitary. Males are much larger than females and have cheek and throat pouches when mature. Gorillas all live in Central Africa. The eastern and western populations are recognized as separate species, G. berengei and G. gorilla. Gorillas are strongly sexually dimorphic, with males about twice the size of females. In older males, called silverbacks, the hair on the back turns white or gray. Chimpanzees (Figure 4b) are the species considered to be most closely related to humans. However, the species most closely related to the chimpanzee is the bonobo.

Image shows a gibbon mother and baby.

Figure 5. Lesser and great apes. This white-cheeked gibbon (a) is a lesser ape. In gibbons of this species, females and infants are buff and males are black. This young chimpanzee (b) is one of the great apes. It possesses a relatively large brain and has no tail. (credit a: MAC. credit b: modification of work by Aaron Logan)

Genetic evidence suggests that chimpanzee and human lineages separated 5 to 7 MYA, while chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and bonobo (Pan paniscus) lineages separated about 2 MYA. Chimpanzees and bonobos both live in Central Africa, but the two species are separated by the Congo River, a significant geographic barrier. Bonobos are slighter than chimpanzees, but have longer legs and more hair on their heads. In chimpanzees, white tail tufts identify juveniles, while bonobos keep their white tail tufts for life. Bonobos also have higher-pitched voices than chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are more aggressive and sometimes kill animals from other groups, while bonobos are not known to do so. Both chimpanzees and bonobos are omnivorous. Orangutan and gorilla diets also include foods from multiple sources, although the predominant food items are fruits for orangutans and foliage for gorillas.

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