What’s a Primate?
In 1758, a now renowned scientist by the name of Carolus Linnaeus (aka Carl Linnaeus) first assigned the term “Primate” to the group of animals in which he included humans. (Read more about Linnaeus and taxonomy here.) The word primate comes from the Latin word “primus” meaning chief or principle. And although many people in English-speaking countries nowadays have a general idea that primates include animals such as lemurs, monkeys, and apes, the word primate can take on quite a different meaning. In the Anglican Church, a primate is often used to refer to a bishop of high ranking in a particular area.
But, this site is all about the other type of primate, that is, a creature that falls into the biological classification known as Order Primates. So, there are a few basic things you should know about a primate. Here they are, comin’ at you in an easy-to-read, bulleted style.
- Primates are intelligent. They have large brains relative to their body size. The parts of the brain used the most by a primate tend to be the areas associated with visual processing. So, we are all “visual learners,” to varying degrees!
- Along those lines, primates have eyes facing forward, not out to the side like a bunny rabbit or horse. Helping to increase the visual field, the forward-facing eyes assist primates as they move through their environment, looking for food. They also have short noses, which corresponds to a decreased reliance on smell, especially compared to an animal such as a dog.
- Primates live a long time relative to their body size, take an extended amount of time to grow up, and usually only have a few babies at a time with sizable gaps in between births. They tend to invest a lot of time and energy (money in our case!) into raising each offspring and provide the youngsters with much attention in the form of teaching and care.
- When it comes to the skeleton, primates have collarbones. (You probably know about the collarbone since it is one of the most commonly broken bones in humans!) Primates also have two bones in each forearm and two bones in each leg.
- Primates do not have claws. Instead, the fingers and toes are covered on their surface by layers of a tough substance (keratin), which makes up what we call fingernails and toenails. Side note: according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest fingernails of a female belong to Lee Redmond (USA), who has not cut her nails since 1979. Each fingernail is around 2 feet long, for a total of over 28 feet of nails!
- Primates tend to sit and move more upright than do other mammals. So, where a dog rarely leaves all four feet (other than when we dangle food over its head), it is a common event to observe primates standing on perches or walking on the ground upright on two feet.
- Primates have opposable thumbs and toes. This means that you can touch your thumb to every other finger on your hand. Can you do that with your toes? Most likely not, though most other primates can. However, your toes were much more flexible as an infant and babies are often seen using their feet to play. People who have lost their hands can often perform amazing feats with their toes as well! Most nonhuman primates use their hands and feet for grasping onto branches as they move through the trees and for grasping food to eat.
Though we’ve covered the most obvious traits, there are a few other defining primate features as well, such as that primates have at least three types of teeth (you have four—incisors, canines, premolars, and molars) and that the bones of the middle ear are housed within the skull, not in a separate bone as is seen in other mammals. All the features together make up a general grouping of animals: the primates of the world!
To understand what a primate is shouldn’t be too difficult for you since humans and nonhuman primates share so much in common. Take how you look, how you’re put together, and how you behave, and you will understand the basic make-up of other primates. This makes sense, given that our genetic information is nearly identical, with less than a 1% difference between ourselves and chimpanzees. In fact, here is a translated quote by Carolus Linneaus almost 300 years ago when he was attempting find a physical difference between humans and simians (group of nonhuman primates) since people then weren’t too comfortable having humans grouped so closely to other animals. “But I ask you and the whole world a generic difference between men and simians in accordance with the principles of Natural History. I certainly know none. If only someone would tell me one!”
Any primatologist can entertain you for hours with stories about the primates that they study: how the behavior so mimics our own and about the parallels they can see in their own lives as the dynamics of social relationships play out in the study group. Primates make endearing facial gestures, are inquisitive, and seem to show the same reactions to the events around them that we show. Though it is generally unacceptable for scientists to publish articles in scientific journals that anthropomorphize, or assign human feelings, thoughts, and emotions to nonhuman things, it is difficult to dance around the likelihood that organisms that share so much of our biology might very well share some of our thoughts and feelings. Or, it might be completely the opposite: they may be just different enough to process the world in a much different way. That’s part of the fun in learning more about them! Until we can speak their language, we will never know exactly what they’re thinking, but each new discovery about their particular nuances definitely keeps things interesting.