An Introduction to Primates

When you hear someone refer to “the order of primates”, you might think they are talking about some sort of secret society among apes. Don’t worry though, an order is actually a taxonomical group, similar to that of other large groups, such as songbirds.  An order is larger than a ‘family’ (e.g bufonidae, the toad family), but smaller than a ‘class’ (e.g osteichthyes, a class encompassing all bony fish).

Primates, excluding humans, generally live close to the equator, in South Africa, South and central America, and South Asia. There are over 400 species of primate, and these are not limited to monkeys and apes – there are other, more primitive forms of primate, called prosimians. Prosimians are smaller than other primates, and include Lemurs, arboreal (Tree-inhabiting) creatures exclusive to Madagascar. Other, less well-known prosimians include tarisers and other, similar animals. The more advanced and more well-known primates include apes, monkeys and humans. While many animals are often described as apes, there are only four species of true ape. These are the Orang Utan, the Gorilla, the Chimpanzee, and the Bonobo. The gibbon, for instance, is often called “ape”, but is actually regarded as a lesser ape. ‘Orang Utan’ literally means “Man of the Forest”, a name suited to these arboreal apes. They are smaller than humans, and females are far lighter than males.

Chimpanzees are larger than Orang Utans, and are the most intelligent animals in the world, excluding mankind. The Gorilla is much larger and heavier than a human, but surprisingly it has a shorter average lifespan. The bonobo is also known as the pygmy or dwarf chimpanzee. Despite its name, it is only slightly shorter than a normal chimpanzee, and has longer limbs. The bonobo is significant to us because it is believed to be the closest relative of humans, due to its close connection with australopithecus (which translates to “southern ape”). This extinct African species is believed to have evolved into homo habilis (handy human). This ancestor to mankind evolved into homo erectus (upright human) and then homo sapiens (wise human), the humans which exist today.

You may still be wondering where Neanderthal man comes into this. The Neanderthals are actually a subspecies of humans, homo sapiens neanderthalensis. They were more robustly built than modern humans, but are now extinct. Interestingly, they had larger brains than modern humans as well. Remember that for the next time someone calls you a Neanderthal!