Time to monkey around. (Chimpanzee photo by Delphine Bruyere)
The order Primates (pronounced, oddly enough, pry-MAY-teez when you are talking about the order, and PRY-mayts when talking about individual members) is one of the largest, most diversified, and most successful orders in the mammal group. They have been around since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and are the kings and queens of mammalian life in the trees.
But before we begin, there is one thing we should get out of the way — yes, humans are primates. However any person wishes to justify it is, personally, fine by me, whether we evolved from more older primate forms or whether God influenced our evolution or whether God sprang us from the ether fully formed with traits that just happen to fit us perfectly into the primate category. That’s up to you, and as business goes it’s none of mine. But the fact of it is essentially unavoidable. We are primates.
There are some who believe that humans should not be placed on the tree of animal life, that we exist beyond it, but we are not some higher form of life. We emerged from the natural processes of the world like everything else. We are intelligent, we are industrious, and we have conquered the Earth’s many habitats like no animal before us has ever done. We have developed language, science, philosophy, and art. We are an amazing, wonderful species when we are at our best. Being a primate diminishes us not at all. Whether we are God’s chosen children or whether we have simply evolved and developed in such a manner as to rise for the most part above our animal instincts, we are still primates. This is where we fit. These creatures are our distant cousins.
That said, I will not be including an entry specifically about humans. The tale of our evolution, mostly known to us but still containing mysteries, is not meant for this record, nor is the long story of our history from our humble African roots to our establishment of civilization to our modern day intelligent adaptation to all the continents of Earth. I may one day tell that story, but the Book of Beasts is for our wild counterparts, and humans are a rather domesticated lot. Besides, we already get our share of mentions when it comes to our actions toward the animals of the world.
The wild primates used to be divided by their dominant features. They were the prosimians, which had features closer to older, more primitive primates, and the simians, which developed later. But today scientists, who do love to muck about with the order of things, instead classify primates by two different features. They are the curly-nosed primates and the dry-nosed primates. Many scientists still prefer the older grouping, which complicates things. Put it out of your mind, gentle reader, and think of monkeys.
Thinking of lemurs is also acceptable. (Red ruffed lemur photo by Hans Hillwaert)
Primates range from very small (the one-ounce Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur) to very large (the 450-pound eastern lowland gorilla), with all sorts of shapes, details, and behaviors in between, but there are a few things they all have in common.
With the exception of humans, as noted above, primates tend to live in tropical or sub-tropical regions where thick forests flourish. They are for the most part tree specialists, you see, and the more trees are around the happier a primate is.
While many animals and even some mammals have evolved to take advantage of trees, primates have truly taken trees to heart. Grasping hands, color vision, developed brains, the ability to walk on two legs, creative thinking — all of these things that helped humans become what we are today initially developed because they are great for living in trees.
Primates all have flexible shoulder joints that let them move their upper arms in many directions. Think of a dog or a cat — they can’t move their shoulders like we can because they did not evolve to move in trees, where such shoulder joints are highly advantageous.
All primates have five fingers and five toes, and have opposable thumbs used for grasping and manipulating objects. These features allow primates to easily climb and swing from branches, and they helped humans become the crafty, technological wizards we are. All primates also have sensitive toes and fingers to help with climbing and balance in the trees, whereas most other mammals have their toes and fingers protected somehow.
Primates have forward-facing eyes that allow accurate depth perception, critical for jumping through trees and also, coincidentally, for driving cars. This is why we don’t let horses drive the school bus. As a bonus, primates can (almost) all see in color.
All primates also tend to give birth to only one young at a time in most cases. As complex mammals, primates require a lot of attention from their mothers, and take longer to fully develop than most mammals, so it is better to have one offspring at a time. Primates are mostly social creatures as well, and typically have dominance hierarchies where one member of each group, typically the strongest, gets to make and enforce the rules over others. Sound familiar?
Last but certainly not least, all primates have large brains relative to their body sizes. A big brain allows for quick, easy processing of all the sensory information involved with swinging through branches high above the ground. This is why the feature developed, but as a side effect all primates are pretty smart cookies as far as animals go, and humans, of course, became the smartest cookies of all — though we did not develop as a distinct species until long after our ancient ancestors came down out of the trees and decided to give the ground a try. Fortunately for them it turned out that having that big brain, those grasping hands that could make tools, and that social cooperation, all of which developed in the trees, let them succeed on the ground as well.
There are a lot of different primates to cover, hundreds of them, so we will lump them together and be brief where we can. But there is a lot to know about these diverse and clever creatures, so let’s begin.
“About time, good fellow.” (Agile gibbon photo by Julie Langford)