Primates are an order of mammals that includes apes, humans, lemurs, lorises, monkeys and tarsiers. They have a number of distinct features that separates them from other mammals. These include grasping hands and feet, nails and stereoscopic vision.

The evolution of humanoids has made primates unquestionably the most intelligent group of animals on Earth. Although the human species is doing very well for themselves, many other primate species are struggling for survival. Of the 4,500+ species of mammals, there are only 376 recognized species of primates – grouped into 15 families.

Primates are found on all seven continents, although they are most successful in tropical and sub-tropical climates. This achievement is solely due to the resourcefulness and curiosity of humans to colonize new land.

The primates originated in the forests of Africa around 59-40 million years ago and Africa remains home for a large number of primate species. Many species are found only in Africa or close by lands such as Arabia and India. Gibbons and lorises can be found in Asia and India. Five families of primates are found in Central and South America and they are commonly referred to as the ‘new world monkeys’.

Old world monkeys

Old world monkeys are monkeys that are found within Asia and Africa. This equates to a total of 153 species and includes the most charismatic primate mammals such as baboons and apes. Other old world monkeys include macaques, langurs, gibbons, guenons, vervets, mangabeys, colobus monkey, proboscis monkey and the snub-nosed monkey.

A select few of the old world monkeys have made the transition from life in trees to life on the ground, baboons and apes are a good example. Most species are highly social and live in large family groups usually led by a dominant male.


Apes are tailless primates and are split into the great apes and the lesser apes. The great apes are a group of very charismatic and popular animals that includes gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Apart from orangutans, which are found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the great apes are found only in the African continent. The great apes are all large animals with the average weight of males being greater than 80 kg in all species.

Lesser apes include gibbons and siamangs and are found in South-east Asia. The lesser apes are much smaller than great apes and look far more similar to monkeys. There are 15 species of gibbon and one species of siamang.

The conservation status of the apes is in dire straights and all ape species are listed as endangered or critically endangered under the IUCN Red List. Wild gorilla populations only exist in two separate locations in Central Africa and West Africa, separated by approximately 900 km; and orangutans are limited to a couple of patches of forest on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.


Humans (Homo sapiens) don’t really need any introduction. Being tailless, humans are technically a species of ape and are more specifically a great ape. Of the currently existing primate species, humans are most closely related to chimpanzees and our closest common ancestor dates back to around 25 million years ago. Modern humans emerged around 500,000 years ago and they are now by far the most intelligent animals the Earth has ever seen.

New world monkeys

The new world monkeys include four families and 100+ species that are found only in Central and South America. New world monkeys include a huge variety of different monkeys including well-known species such as capuchin monkeys, tamarins, marmosets, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys and spider monkeys.

Marmosets and tamarins are the smallest of the world’s primates ranging from 100-750 g. Capuchins and squirrel monkeys live from Mexico down to southern Brazil. The squirrel monkeys live in large social groups of up to 200 individuals. Capuchins are strongly territorial and mark their territories by soaking their hands and feet in urine to leave a scent. Other new world monkeys include night monkeys, titi monkeys, uakaris and sakis.


The 19 species of lemurs are found on the island of Madagascar and the neighboring Comoro Islands. The majority of species live in social groups and in most cases it is a dominant female that leads the group. Some nocturnal lemurs live solitary lives but even these species can be quite social animals.

The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is the best known species and they can live in social groups of up to 30 individuals. Aside from the true lemurs there are also woolly lemurs and sportive lemurs that belong to two different families. Other closely related primates include indris, avahis, sifakas and aye-ayes.

Lorises and Tarsiers

Lorises are a family of just nine species, seven being found in Africa and the remaining two in Asia. The lorises are nocturnal primates that are mostly omnivorous and their diets often include gum and nectar. Considering their diet includes high energy foods, the lorises have a lower than expected metabolism and are slow-moving primates. The loris family also includes pottos, angwantibos and galagos.

There are seven species of tarsiers that all belong to one genus. They are a distinctive looking primate with large eyes, a large head and small body (similar in size to a guinea pig). Tarsiers feed mostly on insects and are some of the best jumpers within the primates, a skill that helps them to travel between trees.

Interesting facts:

  • The slow lorises from the genus Nycticebus are the only poisonous species of primates.
  • One species of baboon lives in cliffs in groups of up to 750 individuals.
  • At birth, a baby tarsier can weigh up to 30% of their mother’s body weight – similar to a human mother giving birth to a 40 lbs. baby.
  • Marmoset and tamarin females usually give birth to fraternal twins that share each other’s blood cells – a feature known as chimera.

Last edited: 13 December 2015

Exit mobile version