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A primate is any member of the biological order Primates (Latin: "prime, first rank"[2]).

This group contains lemurs, the Aye-aye, lorids, galagos, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes, with the last category including humans.[3] With the exception of humans, which now inhabit every continent on Earth, most primates live in tropical or subtropical regions of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Primates range in size from the 30 g (1 ounce) Pygmy Mouse Lemur to the 200 kg (440 pound) Gorilla. According to fossil evidence, the primitive ancestors of primates may have existed in the late Cretaceous period around 65 Ma (million years ago), and the oldest known primate is the Late Paleocene Plesiadapis, c 55–58 Ma. Molecular clock studies suggest that the primate branch is even more ancient, originating in the mid-Cretaceous period around 85 Ma.

The Primates order is divided informally into three main groupings: prosimians, monkeys of the New World, and monkeys and apes of the Old World. The bodies of the prosimians most closely resemble those of the early proto-primates. The best-known of the prosimians, the lemurs, are located on the island of Madagascar and to a lesser extent on the Comoros Islands, isolated from the rest of the world. The New World monkeys, which include the familiar capuchin, howler, and squirrel monkeys, live exclusively in the Americas. With the exception of humans, the rest of the Old World monkeys and the apes inhabit Africa and southern and central Asia, although fossil evidence shows many species existed in Europe as well.

Primates are adapted for a tree-dwelling lifestyle. Anatomical adaptations support their reliance on vision, their dominant sensory system, rather than smell, the dominant sensory system in most mammals. In some primates, three-color vision has developed. Most primates also have opposable thumbs and some have prehensile tails. Many species are sexually dimorphic, in that males and females have different physical traits, including body mass, canine tooth size, and coloration. Primates have slower rates of development than other similarly sized mammals, and reach maturity later but have longer lifespans. A variety of locomotion techniques are used, including leaping from tree to tree, walking on two or four limbs, knuckle-walking and swinging between branches of trees (known as brachiation). Similarly, primates use a variety of social systems. Some species are solitary, others are monogamous, and others live in groups of up to hundreds of members.



Evolutionary history



Rodentia (rodents)



Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas)




Scandentia (treeshrews)




Dermoptera (colugos)













The Primates order lies in a tight clustering of related orders (the Euarchontoglires) within the Eutheria, a subclass of Mammalia. Recent molecular genetic research on primates, colugos, and treeshrews has shown that the two species of colugos are more closely related to the primates than the treeshrews,[4] even though the treeshrews were at one time considered primates.[5] These three orders make up the Euarchonta clade. This clade combines with the Glires clade (made up of the Rodentia and Lagomorpha) to form the Euarchontoglires clade. Variously, both Euarchonta and Euarchontoglires are ranked as superorders. Also, some scientists consider Dermoptera a suborder of Primates and call the "true" primates the suborder Euprimates.[6]



In modern, cladistic reckonings, the Primates order is also a true clade. The suborder Strepsirrhini, the "wet-nosed" primates, is generally believed to have split off from the primitive primate line about 63 Ma (million years ago),[7] although an earlier date may be possible.[8] The seven strepsirhine families are the four related lemur families and the three remaining families that include the lorises, the Aye-aye, the galagos, and the pottos.[1] Older classification schemes wrap the Lepilemuridae into the Lemuridae and the Galagidae into the Lorisidae, yielding a three-two family split instead of the four-three split as presented here.[1] Other lineages of lower primates inhabited Earth. During the Eocene, most of the northern continents were dominated by two groups, the adapids and the omomyids.[9] The former is considered a member of Strepsirrhini, but it does not have a toothcomb like modern lemurs. The latter was related closely to tarsiers, monkeys, and apes. Adapids survived until about 10 Ma.[10] Omomyids, on the other hand, perished about 20 million years earlier.[9]

Ring-tailed Lemur, a strepsirrhine primate
Ring-tailed Lemur, a strepsirrhine primate

The Aye-aye is difficult to place in Strepsirrhini.[1] Theories have been proposed that its family, Daubentoniidae, is either be a lemuriform primate (meaning its ancestors split from lemur line more recently than the lemurs and lorises split) or that it is sister to all of the other strepsirrhines. Research confirms that the Aye-aye family, Daubentoniidae, is a lemuriform.[8]

The suborder Haplorrhini, the "dry-nosed" primates, is composed of two sister clades.[1] The prosimian tarsiers in family Tarsiidae (monotypic in its own infraorder Tarsiiformes), represent the most primitive division at about 58 Ma.[11][12] The Simiiformes infraorder emerged about 40 Ma,[9] and contains the two clades: the parvorder Platyrrhini that developed in South America and contains New World monkeys is one, and the parvorder Catarrhini that developed in Africa and contains the Old World monkeys, humans and the other apes in the other.[1] A third clade, which included the eosimiids, developed in Asia but went extinct millions of years ago.[13]

Apes and monkeys spread from Africa into Europe and Asia. Close behind came lorises and tarsiers, also African castaways. The first hominid fossils were discovered in Northern Africa and date back 5–8 Ma.[9] Molecular and fossil studies generally show that modern humans originate in Africa 100–200 Ka (thousand years ago).[14]

Emperor Tamarin, a New World monkey
Emperor Tamarin, a New World monkey

A few new species are discovered each year, and the evaluation of current populations as distinct species is in flux. Biological anthropologist Colin Groves listed about 350 species of primates in Primate Taxonomy in 2001.[15] The recently published third edition of Mammal Species of the World (MSW3) lists 376 species.[1] But even the latter list falls short of current understanding as its collection cutoff was in 2003, and a number of publications since then have pushed up to 406 species. Notable new species not listed in MSW3 include the Bemaraha Woolly Lemur (Avahi cleesei, named after British actor and lemur enthusiast John Cleese) and the Monkey (whose name was put up for auction).




A 1927 drawing of chimpanzees, a gibbon (top right) and two orangutans (center and bottom center);  the chimp in the upper left is brachiating, the orang at the bottom center is knuckle-walking
A 1927 drawing of chimpanzees, a gibbon (top right) and two orangutans (center and bottom center); the chimp in the upper left is brachiating, the orang at the bottom center is knuckle-walking
Homo sapiens, a member of the order Primates
Homo sapiens, a member of the order Primates
  • Order Primates
    • Suborder Strepsirrhini: non-tarsier prosimians
      • Infraorder Lemuriformes
        • Superfamily Cheirogaleoidea
          • Family Cheirogaleidae: dwarf lemurs and mouse-lemurs (31 species)

        • Superfamily Lemuroidea

          • Family Lemuridae: lemurs (19 species)
          • Family Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs (22 species)
          • Family Indriidae: woolly lemurs and allies (18 species)

      • Infraorder Chiromyiformes

        • Family Daubentoniidae: Aye-aye (1 species)

      • Infraorder Lorisiformes

        • Family Lorisidae: lorises, pottos and allies (9 species)
        • Family Galagidae: galagos (19 species)

    • Suborder Haplorrhini: tarsiers, monkeys and apes

      • Infraorder Tarsiiformes
        • Family Tarsiidae: tarsiers (8 species)

      • Infraorder Simiiformes

        • Parvorder Platyrrhini: New World monkeys
          • Family Cebidae: marmosets, tamarins, capuchins and squirrel monkeys (56 species)
          • Family Aotidae: night or owl monkeys (douroucoulis) (7 species)
          • Family Pitheciidae: titis, sakis and uakaris (41 species)
          • Family Atelidae: howler, spider and woolly monkeys (24 species)

        • Parvorder Catarrhini

          • Superfamily Cercopithecoidea
            • Family Cercopithecidae: Old World monkeys (135 species)

          • Superfamily Hominoidea

            • Family Hylobatidae: gibbons or "lesser apes" (13 species)
            • Family Hominidae: humans and other great apes (7 species)

Philippine Tarsier, once considered a prosimian, now considered a haplorrhine
Philippine Tarsier, once considered a prosimian, now considered a haplorrhine

The order Primates was established by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, in the tenth edition of his book Systema Naturae,[16] for the genera Homo (humans), Simia (other apes and monkeys), Lemur (prosimians) and Vespertilio (bats). In the first edition of the same book (1735), he had used the name Anthropomorpha for Homo, Simia and Bradypus (sloths).[17] In 1839, Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, following Linnaeus and imitating his nomenclature, established the orders Secundates (including the suborders Chiroptera, Insectivora and Carnivora), Tertiates (or Glires) and Quaternates (including Gravigrada, Pachydermata and Ruminantia),[18] but these new taxa were not accepted.

In older classifications, the Primates were divided into two superfamilies: Prosimii and Anthropoidea.[19] The Prosimii included all of the prosimians: all of Strepsirrhini plus the tarsiers. The Anthropoidea contained all of the simians.



Primate hybrids usually arise in captivity,[20] but there have also been examples in the wild.[21][22] Hybridization occurs where two species' territories overlap; these hybrid zones may be created by humans when animals are placed in zoos or may be due to environmental pressures such as predation.[21] Intergeneric hybridizations, hybrids of different genera, have also been found in the wild. Although they belong to genera that have been distinct for several million years, interbreeding still occurs between the Gelada and the Hamadryas Baboon.[23]


Distinguishing features

Primates have diversified in arboreal habitats and although they have primitive (unspecialized) body plan, retain many characteristics that are adaptations to this environment.[24] They are distinguished by the retention of the collar bone in the pectoral girdle; shoulder joints which allow high degrees of movement in all directions; five digits on the fore and hind limbs with opposable thumbs and big toes; fingernails; sensitive tactile pads on the ends of the digits; a trend towards reduced snout and sense of smell; a reduced number of teeth compared to primitive mammals; a complex visual system with high visual acuity and color vision; a large brain in comparison to body size; enlarged cerebral cortex; two mammary glands; typically one young per pregnancy; a long gestation and developmental period and a trend toward holding the torso upright leading to bipedalism.[24] Primates are frequently highly social, with flexible dominance hierarchies.[25] New World species form monogamous pair bonds, and show substantial paternal care of young, unlike most Old World monkeys.[26]


Anatomy, physiology and morphology

Primate skull size and weight comparison
Primate skull size and weight comparison

Primates have two forward-facing eyes on the front of the skull; binocular vision allows accurate distance perception, useful for the brachiating ancestors of humans.[24] There is a bony ridge above the eye sockets; this ridge reinforces weaker bones in the face which are put under strain during chewing. Strepsirrhines have a postorbital bar, a bone which runs around the eye socket, to protect their eyes; in contrast, the higher primates, haplorrhines, have evolved fully enclosed sockets.[27]

The primate skull has a large domed cranium which is particularly prominent in anthropoids. The cranium protects the large brain, a distinguishing characteristic of this group.[24] The endocranial volume (the volume within the skull) is three-fold greater in humans than in the greatest non-human primate, reflecting a larger brain size.[28] The mean human endocranial volume is 1201 cubic centimetres, it is 469 cm³ in gorillas, 400 cm³ in chimpanzees and 397 cm³ in orangutans.[28] The primary evolutionary trend of primates has been the elaboration of the brain, in particular the neocortex (a part of the cerebral cortex) which is involved with sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and, in humans, language.[29] While other mammals rely heavily on their sense of smell, the arboreal life of primates has led to a tactile, visually dominant sensory system,[29] a reduction in the olfactory region of the brain and increasingly complex social behavior.[30]

An 1893 drawing of the hands and feet of primates
An 1893 drawing of the hands and feet of primates

Primates generally have five digits on each limb (pentadactyly), with keratin nails on the end of each finger. The bottom sides of the hands and feet have senstive pads on the fingertips. Most have opposable thumbs, a characteristic primate feature; however opposing thumbs are not limited to this order (opossums, for example, also have them).[24] Thumbs allow some species to use tools. In primates, the combination of opposing thumbs, short fingernails (rather than claws) and long, inward-closing fingers is a relic of the ancestral practice of gripping branches, and has, in part, allowed some species to develop brachiation (swinging by the arms from tree limb to tree limb) as a significant means of transportation. Prosimians have clawlike nails on the second toes of their feet.[24]

The primate collar bone is retained as prominent element of the pectoral girdle; this allows the shoulder joint broad mobility.[25] Apes have more mobile shoulder joints and arms due to the dorsal position of the scapula, broad ribcages that are flatter front-to-back, and a shorter, less mobile spine compared to Old World monkeys (with lower vertebrae greatly reduced, resulting in tail loss in some species). Old World monkeys are unlike apes in that most have tails, and unlike the New World monkeys in that their tails are never prehensile. Only the New World Atelidae family have prehensile tails.

Primates show a trend towards a reduced snout.[25] Technically, the distinction of Old World monkeys from New World monkeys depends on the structure of the nose, and the distinction of Old World monkeys from apes depends on the arrangement of their teeth.[30] In New World monkeys the nostrils face sideways, while in Old World monkeys, they face downwards.[30] There is a considerably varied dental pattern in primates and although some have lost most of their incisors, all retain at least one lower incisor.[30] In most strepsirhines, the lower incisors form a toothcomb which is thought to be used in grooming and possibly foraging.[30] Old World monkeys also have eight premolars, compared with twelve in New World monkeys.[30] The Old World species are divided into apes and monkeys depending on the number of cusps on their molars; apes have five, Old World monkeys have four.[30] The main hominid molar cusp (hypocone) evolved in early primate history, while the cusp of the corresponding primitive lower molar (paraconid) was lost. Prosimians are distinguished by their immobilized upper lips, moist tip to their nose and forward-facing lower front teeth.

The evolution of color vision in primates is unique among most eutherian mammals. While the remote vertebrate ancestors of the primates possessed three color vision (trichromacy), the nocturnal, warm-blooded, mammalian ancestors lost one of three cones in the retina at the time of dinosaurs. Fish, reptiles and birds are therefore trichromatic while all mammals, with the exception of some primates and marsupials,[31] are strictly dichromats. Catarrhines are routinely trichromatic,[32] platyrrhines, on the other hand, are non-routinely trichromatic; meaning only a small population of platyrrhines are trichromats.[33]

Howler monkeys have reinvented routine trichromatism through a recent gene duplication of the red-green opsin gene.[34] Howler monkeys are one of the most specialized leaf-eaters of the New World monkeys, fruits are not a major part of their diet,[35] and the type of leaves they prefer to consume (young, nutritive, and digestible), are detectable only by a red-green signal. Field work exploring the dietary preferences of howler monkeys suggests that routine trichromacy was environmentally selected for.[33]


Sexual dimorphism

Distinct sexual size dimorphism can be seen between the male Hamadryas Baboons (grey) and the female (brown)
Distinct sexual size dimorphism can be seen between the male Hamadryas Baboons (grey) and the female (brown)

Main article: Sexual dimorphism in non-human primates

Sexual dimorphism, the variation between individuals of different sex in the same species, is often exhibited in simians; though to a greater degree in Old World species (apes and some monkeys) than New World species. Recent studies involve comparing DNA to examine both the variation in the expression of the dimorphism among primates and the fundamental causes of sexual dimorphism. Primates usually have dimorphism in body mass[36][37] and canine tooth size[38][39] along with pelage and skin color.[40] The dimorphism can be attributed to and affected by different factors, including mating system,[41] size,[41] habitat and diet.[42]

Comparative analyses have substantiated the sexual selection hypotheses, and have generated a more complete understanding of the relationship between sexual selection, natural selection, and mating systems in primates. Studies are helping to find the relative contribution of the various selective and non-selective mechanisms in sexual dimorphism evolution and expression.[43] These studies have shown that dimorphism is the product of changes in both male and female traits. Ontogenic scaling, where relative extension of a common growth trajectory occurs, may give some insight into the relationship between sexual dimorphism and growth patterns.[44] Some evidence from the fossil record suggests that there was convergent evolution of dimorphism, and some extinct hominids probably exceeded dimorphism of any living primate.[43]



Diademed Sifaka, a vertical clinger and leaper, ready to leap to another tree
Diademed Sifaka, a vertical clinger and leaper, ready to leap to another tree

Various species of primates move by brachiation, bipedalism, leaping, arboreal and terrestrial quadrupedalism, climbing or knuckle-walking. Several prosimians are primarily vertical clinger and leapers. These include many bushbabies, all indriids (i.e., sifakas, avahis and indris), sportive lemurs, and all tarsiers.[45] Other prosimians are arboreal quadrupedalists and climbers. Some are also terrestrial quadrupedalists, while some are leapers. Most monkeys are both arboreal and terrestrial quadrupedalists and climbers. Gibbons, muriquis and spider monkeys all use brachiation extensively.[46] Woolly monkeys also sometimes brachiate.[35] Orangutans use a similar form of locomotion called quadramanous climbing, in which they use their arms and legs to carry their heavy bodies through the trees.[46] Chimpanzees and gorillas knuckle walk,[46] and can move bipedally for short distances. Humans are the only fully bipedal species.




Social systems

Japanese Macaques bathe together in Jigokudani Hot Spring
Japanese Macaques bathe together in Jigokudani Hot Spring

Richard Wrangham proposed that social systems are best classified by the amount of movement by females occurring between groups.[47] He proposed four categories:

  • Female transfer systems - females move away from the group in which they were born. Females of a group will not be closely related whereas males will have remained with their natal groups and therefore the close association may be influential in social behavior. The groups formed are generally quite small. This organization can be seen in chimpanzees, where the males, who are typically related, will cooperate in defending the group's territory. Among New World Monkeys, spider monkeys and muriquis use this system.[48]
  • Male transfer systems - while the females remain in their natal groups, the males will emigrate as adolescents. Polygynous and multi-male societies are classed in this category. Group sizes are usually larger. This system is common among the Ring-tailed Lemur, capuchin monkeys and cercopithecine monkeys.[46]
  • Monogamous species - a male-female bond, sometimes accompanied by juvenile offspring. There is shared responsibility of parental care and territorial defense. The offspring leave the parents' territory during adolescence. Gibbons essentially use this system, although "monogamy" in this context does not necessarily mean absolute sexual fidelity.[49]
  • Solitary species - often males who defend territories that include the home ranges of several females. This type of organization is found in the prosimians. Orangutans do not defend their territory but effectively have this organization.[50]

Other systems are known to occur as well. For example, with howler monkeys both the males and females typically transfer from their natal group upon reaching sexual maturity, resulting in groups in which neither the males or females are typically related.[35] Some prosimians, colobine monkeys and callitrichid monkeys also use this system.[46]

Chimpanzees are social animals
Chimpanzees are social animals

Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who studied in the Gombe Stream National Park, noted fission-fusion societies in chimpanzees.[51] There is fission where the main group splits up to forage during the day, then fusion when the group returns at night to sleep as a group. This social structure can also be observed in the Hamadryas Baboon,[52] spider monkeys[35] and the Bonobo.[52] The Gelada has a similar social structure in which many smaller groups come together to form temporary herds of up to 600 monkeys.[52]

These social systems are affected by three main ecological factors: distribution of resources, group size and predation.[26] Within a social group there is a balance between cooperation and competition. Cooperation comes in the form of allogrooming; whereby ectoparasites are removed and wounds cleaned, food sharing and collective defense against predators or of a territory. Competition is demonstrated by aggression and may come about through availability of food, sleeping sites or mates. Aggression is often used in establishing social hierarchies.[26]



Interspecific associations

Several species of primates are known to associate in the wild. Some of these associations have been extensively studied. In the Tai Forest of Africa, several species coordinate anti-predator behavior. These include the Diana Monkey, Campbell's Mona Monkey, Lesser Spot-nosed Monkey, Western Red Colobus, King Colobus and Sooty Mangabey, which coordinate anti-predator alarm calls.[53] Among the predators of these monkeys is the Common Chimpanzee.[54]

The Red-tailed Monkey associates with several species, including the Western Red Colobus, the Blue Monkey, Wolf's Mona Monkey, the Mantled Guereza, the Black Crested Mangabey and Allen's Swamp Monkey.[52] Several of these species are also predated on by the Common Chimpanzee.[55]

In South America, but not in Central America, squirrel monkeys associate with capuchin monkeys.[56] This may have more to do with foraging benefits to the squirrel monkeys rather than anti-predation benefits.[56]


Cognition and communication

Lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, and New World monkeys are reliant on olfactory signals for many aspects of social and reproductive behavior.[29] Specialized glands are used to mark territories with pheromones, which are detected by the vomeronasal organ; this process forms a large part of the communication behavior of these primates.[29] In Old World monkeys and apes this ability is mostly vestigial, and regressed as color vision evolved to become the main sensory organ.[57] Primates also use vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions to convey psychological state.[58]


Development through life stages

Primates have slower rates of development than other mammals.[46] All non-human primate infants are breastfed by their mothers and rely on them for grooming and transportation.[46] In some species, infants are also protected and transported by males in the group, particularly males who may be their father.[46] Other relatives of the infant, such as siblings and aunts, may also participate in its care.[46] Most primate mothers cease ovulation while breastfeeding an infant; once the infant is weaned the mother can reproduce again.[46] This often leads to weaning conflict with the infant, who often resist weaning and attempt to continue breastfeeding.[46]

Primates have a longer juvenile period between weaning and sexual maturity than other mammals of similar size.[46] During the juvenile period, primates are more susceptible than adults to predation and starvation; they gain experience in feeding and avoiding predators during this period.[46] They also learn social and fighting skills, often through playing.[46]

In addition to reaching maturity later, primates have longer lifespans than other similarly sized mammals.[46] Lifespans are generally longer for female primates than males.[46]


Diet and feeding

Leaf eating Mantled Guereza, a species of black-and-white colobus
Leaf eating Mantled Guereza, a species of black-and-white colobus

Primates exploit a variety of food sources. Most primates include fruit in their diets to obtain easily digested carbohydrates and lipids for energy.[46] However, they require other foods, such as leaves or insects, for amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Many primates have anatomical specializations enabling them to exploit particular foods, such as fruit, leaves, gum or insects.[46] For example, leaf eaters such as howler monkeys, black-and-white colobuses and sportive lemurs, have extended digestive tracts to enable them to absorb nutrients from leaves that can be difficult to digest.[46] Marmosets, which are gum eaters, have strong incisor teeth, enabling them to open tree bark to get to the gum, and claws rather than nails, enabling them to cling to trees while feeding.[46] Some species have additional specializations. For example, the Grey-cheeked Mangabey has thick enamel on its teeth, enabling it to open hard fruits and seeds that other monkeys cannot.[46]

The Gelada is the only primate species that feeds primarily on grass.[59] Tarsiers are the most carnivorous primates, exclusively eating insects, reptiles, amphibians and other live animals.[60] Capuchin monkeys, on the other hand, can exploit many different types of food, including fruit, leaves, flowers, buds, nectar, seeds, insects and other invertebrates, and small vertebrates such as birds, bird eggs, lizards, squirrels and bats.[35] The Common Chimpanzee has a varied diet that includes predation on other primate species, such as the Western Red Colobus monkey.[54][55]


Habitat and distribution

Rhesus Macaque in Indian city of Agra
Rhesus Macaque in Indian city of Agra

Primates evolved from arboreal animals, and many species live most of their lives in trees. Some species are partially terrestrial, such as baboons and the Patas Monkey and a few species are fully terrestrial, such as the Gelada and Humans. Non-human primates live in a diverse number of forested habitats in the tropical latitudes of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and South America, including rainforests, mangrove forests, and montane forests. There are some examples of non-human primates that live outside of the tropics; the mountain-dwelling Japanese Macaque lives in the north of Honshu where there is snow-cover eight months of the year, while the Barbary Macaque lives in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco. Primates also have a considerable vertical range; the Black Snub-nosed Monkey has been found living in the Hengduan Mountains at altitudes of 4,700 meters (15,400 ft),[61] the Mountain Gorilla can be found at 4,200 metres (13,200 ft) crossing the Virunga Mountains[62] and the Gelada has been found at elevations of up to 5,000 meters (16,400 ft) in the Ethiopian Highlands. Although most species are generally shy of water, a few are good swimmers and are comfortable in swamps and watery areas, including the Proboscis Monkey, De Brazza's Monkey and Allen's Swamp Monkey, which has developed small webbing between its fingers. Some primates, such as the Rhesus Macaque and gray langurs, can exploit human-modified environments and even live in cities.[63][52]



Relationship with humans

Capuchin monkeys' manual dexterity is one reason they can assist quadraplegics.
Capuchin monkeys' manual dexterity is one reason they can assist quadraplegics.

Many species of primates have varied relationships with humans. Some are kept as pets, others used as model organisms in laboratories or in space missions.[64] They also serve as service animals for the disabled. Capuchin monkeys can be trained to assist quadraplegics. Their intelligence, memory and manual dexterity allows them to perform tasks that a quadraplegic is physically unable to do.[65]

Primates can act as vectors for spreading viruses such as Herpesviridae, Poxviridae, measles, ebola, rabies, the Marburg virus and viral hepatitis.[66] Some of these are zoonotic diseases that can also be transmitted to humans, most notably, the potentially fatal Herpes B Virus.[66] They may be killed in monkey drives to protect agriculture.[67] Human activities have often been detrimental to primate activity, and have threatened numerous primate species with extinction.


Role in scientific research


Thousands of non-human primates (NHPs) are used around the world in scientific research as animal subjects.[68] Given their close genetic similarity to humans, they are excellent animal models with which to conduct experiments that are relevant to humans.[69] Macaques, especially the Rhesus Macaque, African green monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons and marmosets are widely used in animal testing facilities, either wild-caught or purpose-bred.[68][70] Common research applications for NHPs include preclinical trials, neuroscience, and ophthalmology studies. The anatomy of NHPs, particularly their brain and eyes, more closely parallels human anatomy than that of any other group of animals. In 2004 the European Union used around 10,000 animals; in 2005 in Great Britain alone there were 4,652 experiments conducted on 3,115 non-human primates.[71] As of 2004, 3,100 NHPs were living in captivity in the United States, in zoos, circuses, and laboratories; 1,280 of them were being used in experiments.[72] Governments of many nations have strict care requirements of NHPs kept in captivity. In the US, federal guidelines extensively regulate aspects of NHP housing, feeding, enrichment, and breeding.[73] European campaign groups such as the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments are seeking a ban on all NHP use in experiments as part of the European Union's current review of existing law on animal experimentation.[74]



Legal status

Within the order Primates, only humans are recognized as persons and protected in law by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[75] The status of NHPs is a point of debate, particularly from organizations such as the Great Ape Project[72] and activists such as Ignaas Spruit[76] (director of the Pro-Primates organization), which argue for increased legal rights of NHPs.



Critically Endangered Sumatran Orangutan
Critically Endangered Sumatran Orangutan

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists more than a third of its primates as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. Common threats to primate species include deforestation, forest fragmentation, primate crop raiding, and primate hunting for use in medicines, as pets, and for food. Large-scale tropical forest clearance is widely regarded as the process that most threatens primates.[77][78][79] More than 90% of primate species occur in tropical forests.[80][78] The main cause of forest loss is clearance for agriculture, although commercial logging, subsistence harvesting of timber, mining, and dam construction also contribute to tropical forest depletion.[80] In Indonesia large areas of lowland forest have been cleared to increase palm oil production, and one analysis of satellite imagery concluded that during 1998 and 1999 there was a loss of 1,000 Sumatran Orangutans per year in the Leuser Ecosystem alone.[81]

Primates with a large body size (over 5 kg) have an increased extinction risk due to their increased profitability to poachers compared to smaller primates.[80] They also have a slow life history with an increased sexual maturity age and a longer period between births. Populations therefore have a slower recovery time after the loss of members to poaching or the pet trade.[82] In some African cities estimates suggest that half of all protein consumed in urban areas comes from the bushmeat trade.[83] Endangered primates such as guenons and the Drill are hunted at levels that far exceed sustainable levels.[83] This is due to their large body size, ease of transport and profitability per animal.[83] As farming encroaches on forest habitats, primates feed on the crops, causing the farmers large economic losses.[84] Primate crop raiding gives locals a negative impression of primates, hindering conservation efforts.[85]

Madagascar, home to five endemic primate families, has experienced the greatest extinction of the recent past; since human settlement 1,500 years ago, at least eight classes and fifteen species have become extinct due to hunting and habitat destruction.[29] Among the primates wiped out were Archaeoindris (a lemur larger than a silverback gorilla) and the families Palaeopropithecidae and Archaeolemuridae.[29]

In Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam prohibit eating primate meat; however primates are still hunted for food.[80] Some smaller traditional religions allow the consumption of primate meat.[86][87] The pet trade and traditional medicine also increase demand for illegal hunting.[88][89][90] The expanding Chinese middle class has also increased demand for exotic pets in recent years.[90] The Rhesus Macaque, a model organism, was protected after overtrapping threatened its numbers in the 1960s; the program was so effective that the macaques are now seen as a pest throughout their range.[79]

In Central and South America forest fragmentation and hunting are the two main problems for primates. Large tracts of forest are now rare in Central America.[77][91] This increases the amount of forest vulnerable to edge effects such as farmland encroachment, lower levels of humidity and a change in plant life.[92][93] Movement restriction results in a greater amount of inbreeding, which can cause deleterious effects leading to a population bottleneck, whereby 50% of the population is lost.[94][95]

Critically Endangered Cross River Gorilla
Critically Endangered Cross River Gorilla

In the United States the main threat is the pet trade. Although primate import for the pet trade was banned in 1975, smuggling still occurs along the United States–Mexico border.[96] Prices range from $3000 for monkeys to $30,000 for apes.[96]

There are 21 critically endangered primates, 8 of these species have remained on the IUCN's "The World's 25 Most Endangered Primates" list since the year 2000: the Silky Sifaka, Delacour's Langur, the White-headed Langur, the Gray-shanked Douc, the Tonkin Snub-nosed Langur, the Hainan Black Crested Gibbon, the Cross River Gorilla and the Sumatran Orangutan.[97]


See also

  • List of primates
  • List of prehistoric primates
  • Arboreal theory
  • Primatology



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