Monkeys, Chimps, or Apes: A Primate Primer
“Look, it’s a monkey!” the father says to his son, pointing
at the caged chimpanzee sitting with his back to the onlookers.
The information sheet posted on the wall corrects the misnomer,
but I doubt the man will read it. Sure enough, the pair strolls
forward to look at the next ‘monkey,’ which is really an orangutan.
With more than 350 species of primates in the world, I suppose
it is easy to get confused over who is who, and what is what.
However, as a primate myself I have to wonder if our cousins
are as disgusted as we are when we’re mistakenly called by
the wrong name, or assumed—because of a resemblance—to be
related to someone we dislike. Highly speculative. But in
the tradition of political correctness I will endeavor in
this article to present a primate primer. I know that a baboon
by any name will never smell very sweet, but something about
knowing my gorillas from my gibbons puts everything in its
proper place, and helps me feel as if the world has order.
What Makes a Primate?
Primates are mammals which share the following combination
of traits: their hands and feet have five distinct digits;
they have fingernails and an opposing thumb; they possess
binocular vision with eyes positioned at the front of their
faces; they have a generalized dental pattern; their shoulder
joints are unusually flexible due to secure ball joints and
strong collarbones; and they have a marked tendency toward
erectness, or bipedalism. Other than these basic commonalities,
there is great variation within this order, and even scientists
sometimes have difficulty classifying primates.
In general, primates can be divided into five divisions.
Listed from the most primitive to the most complex, these
divisions are: prosimians, monkeys, lesser apes, great apes,
and humans. Assuming that you can easily identify members
of your own genus, I will focus on the first four classes.
Prosimians are least likely to be identified as primates,
and include about fifty species of lemurs, lorises and bushbabies
of Africa and Asia. They are the smallest of the primate bunch—an
adult pygmy mouse lemur would fit comfortably in your hand.
They have shorter arms than legs, with strong hindquarters
good for leaping and clinging to tree trunks. Their noses
are wet and snout-like, and they have a relatively good sense
of smell, in comparison to the other primates. Most species
are nocturnal, with large, light-reflecting eyes.
The 200+ species of monkeys are classified as New World or
Old World. New World monkeys are found in South or Central
America, and include marmosets, tamarins, and capuchins, among
other monkeys (squirrel, howler, and owl monkeys are some
of the better known species.) Old World monkeys inhabit Africa
and Asia, and include baboons, macaques, and colobus monkeys.
As a general rule, monkeys are smaller than apes, and they
have prehensile tails. They scurry from branch to branch on
all four limbs, much like cats and dogs do. On the evolutionary
line to humans, monkeys split off a long time before apes.
Gibbons are sometimes called “lesser apes.” While their
skulls and teeth resemble those of the great apes and they
lack tails, gibbons are smaller, are pair-bonded, and do not
make nests. In these ways they are more like monkeys. Gibbons
dwell in trees and are known for their skill at brachiating,
or swinging from branch to branch—sometimes at speeds up to
35 miles per hour. There are about twelve different species
Approximately fourteen species of great apes inhabit Africa
and Asia, including gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees.
Apes are the largest of the primate family. A male gorilla
can weigh up to 400 pounds and stand 5 ˝ feet tall. They are
broad-chested, and have arms that are longer than their legs.
Unlike gibbons and monkeys, the great apes live primarily
on the ground, sleeping in individual nests. With a larger
relative brain than other primates (except humans), ape groups
lead complex social lives, create tools, use language, and
solve problems. Chimpanzees share 98% of DNA with humans,
and are therefore frequently used in scientific experimentation,
although this controversial practice is under increased scrutiny.
Except for humans, which are the most dominant and successful
group of primates on earth, all other primate species face
challenges in connection with their habitat loss. Diverse
and unique, our primate relatives will continue to fascinate
About the Author
Emma Snow has always adored wild animals. Emma provides content
for Wildlife Animals http://www.wildlife-animals.com
and Riding Stable http://www.riding-stable.com.