What do you have in common with a chimpanzee, a mountain gorilla, and a spider monkey? You are all closely related mammals – you are primates.
As you might have already guessed there is a wide diversity among primates, but there are some traits that all share. Most primates have “opposable thumbs”, which means that their thumbs can rotate to touch the fingertips on the same hand. This helps primates climb trees and grasp food. Also, primates can see in color, and their brains are generally longer than those of other mammals. They range in size from the tiny mouse lemur, which weighs only 2 ounces, to the gorilla, which can weigh 600 pounds.
The more primitive primates, called prosimians include the strange aye-aye, lemurs and the sifakas. There three-dwelling primates live on the island of Madagascar. Galagos, lorises, pottos, and tarsiers are also prosimians. Scientists believe that the earliest primates that appeared on Earth some 70 million years ago were similar to some of the mammals in this group.
The “higher” primates include marmosets, tamarins, monkeys, apes, and humans. Found only in South America, marmosets and tamarins are squirrel-sized primates that are some of nature’s most spectacular mammals.
Marmosets and tamarins eat fruit, flowers, nectar, insects, frogs and spiders. They live in close family groups of between four and 15 individuals. All members of the group help raise the young – sharing food and even carrying them from time to time. It’s possible that these “babysitters” are learning how to care for the offspring that they will have one day.
Most primates do not exhibit this kind of family cooperation, but some do live in smaller family groups made up of a male and female and their immature offspring. Gibbons and their cousins, the siamang monkeys, live in groups such as this. In titi monkey family groups, the male takes the lead role in caring for the young. He is the one who is in charge of feeding, protecting and carrying the infant until it is about four or five months old and mature enough to keep up with its family.
The great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas – are human beings’ closest relatives. These amazing animals have many behaviors and physical characteristics that are just like ours. Apes have no tails, and they have long arms and highly developed brains. Gorillas are usually described as being of either the lowland or mountain variety. The mountain gorilla is an endangered species. Only a few hundred remain in the mountains of East Africa.