Defining the term "primate"

What exactly is a primate anyways? A dog is not a primate, but is a monkey a primate? Or is a primate a monkey? Is an ape a primate?

The term primate refers to the order primate.

Every species on earth is categorized. For example, you probably know the difference between a plant and an animal. Animals are one type of kingdom (one of the categories) and plants are another type of kingdom. Every species is first broken down into a kingdom, then a phylum, and then an order. Primate is a type of order. Here's the scientific classification for humans, Homo sapiens:
Yellow baboon with infant (Papio cynocephalus)

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Order: Primate
Genus: Homo
Species: sapiens

Humans are a type of primate, as are gibbons, lemurs, and chimpanzees. The order Primate is then further broken down into more groups. Monkeys and apes are both types of primates.

The order Primate is made up of many different species, and this can make it hard to define what exactly the physical characteristics of a primate are. There are always exceptions to every rule, right? For example, not all primates have a tail and not every species with a tail is a primate. Generally speaking, primates have larger brains than expected for their body size, their eyes have moved to the front of their head, and they have a shorter snout.

Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei)
Primates have nails instead of claws, many are arboreal, meaning they live and spend much of their time in the trees, and many are social and live in groups. Primates have grasping feet so that they can move and swing about in trees. The eye orbits of primates are on the front of their head, as opposed to the side of their head like a giraffe. Because their eyes are on the front of their head, they have what is called stereoscopic vision. Stereoscopic vision means that the view of each eye overlaps, creating depth perception. Depth perception allows a primate to know how far it needs to jump to get from one tree branch to another, and it allows humans to reach out and grab a cup of coffee without knocking the cup over or missing the cup entirely.

Check out this post to read why humans did not evolve from chimpanzees or monkeys.
Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta)

  • Critical thinking: How might having stereoscopic vision help a primate that lives in the trees? 
  • Critical thinking:Are you surprised that humans are primates? Does this change the way you view chimpanzees and other primates?

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