What are the Different Types of Primates?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Primates make up a biological order, a tier of taxonomic classification significantly above species but below class and phylum. Primates are also a clade, meaning they descend from a common ancestor, which is thought to have lived more than 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. They are classified into three main groups: New World monkeys, small primates that live in the Americas; Old World monkeys and apes, which live exclusively in Africa, except for humans which live most everywhere, and orangutans which live in Indonesia and Malaysia; and prosimians, the most primitive primates. The most well-known prosimian is the lemur, which lives on Madagascar, though other prosimians can be found in small quantities in Southeast Asia.

Neanderthals are extinct members of the genus Homo.
Neanderthals are extinct members of the genus Homo.

Primates used to be divided into simians and prosimians. Simians are the larger, more human like primates such as apes and monkeys, while prosimians are smaller and more closely resemble rodents. Later it was found that the family Tarsiidae (tarsiers), previously labeled prosimians, was genetically closer to the simians, and therefore got lumped into the same suborder with them. So, the order Primates consists of two suborders - suborder Strepsirrhini, the non-tarsier prosimians, and suborder Haplorrhini, the tarsiers, monkeys, and apes.

Lemurs belong to the primate group known as prosimians.
Lemurs belong to the primate group known as prosimians.

The suborder Haplorrhini is further divided into two infraorders - Tarsiiformes (tarsiers) and Simiiformes (Old and New World monkeys). Simiiformes is broken down into two parvorders - Platyrrhini (New World monkeys) and Catarrhini (Old World monkeys). Platyrrhini contains over 125 unique species, including howler, spider and wolly monkeys, night and owl monkeys, tamarins, and many more. Catarrhini is divided into two superfamilies, Cercopithecoidea (Old World monkeys, about 135 species) and Hominoidea (gibbons and humans, about 20 species). There are over 378 primate species currently recognized, with a few new species being discovered per year.

Monkeys are primates.
Monkeys are primates.

Because it was only relatively recently that it was realized that tarsiers are more closely related to the simians, the older classification, which divides Primates into the suborders Prosimii and Anthropoidea, can still be found in many textbooks and web sites on the Internet. There is still disagreement among primatologists as to what the true classification should be, but the Strepsirrhini/Haplorrhini division is the direction in which acceptance is moving.

Orangutans are primates that live in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Orangutans are primates that live in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Old World monkeys and New World monkeys parted ways about 45 million years ago. The New World monkeys crossed the Bering land bridge during an ancient Ice Age, bringing the Primates to two entirely new continents. During this time, prosimians could also be found over a much wider geographic region than they can be found today, and included large portions of Europe and Asia. Competition with simians forced many prosimian species into obscurity or extinction.

About 25 million years ago, the Old World monkeys (Cercopithecidae) diverged from the apes and gibbons (Hominoidea). The gibbons ("lesser apes") separated from the apes and humans ("great apes") about 18 million years ago. The great apes consist of gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans, the species that are the most obviously human like. Because of their significant intelligence, there are groups in many countries that say all great apes should be regarded as persons, with certain basic rights like freedom from being experimented on. The most famous of all primate species, of course, is the familiar Homo sapiens sapiens.

Chimps are very intelligent primates.
Chimps are very intelligent primates.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


i want to know what the main types or species of primates are.


I'm trying to understand the relationship tarsius dentatus has with other primate families and its place within its own order. Any tips on where to look? I find taxonomy very confusing.


I am trying to list different kinds of primates. Can anyone help?


@medicchristy: Here are a few more monkey facts for you:

The tip of a spider monkey’s tail can support the weight of his body. A monkey was once tried and convicted for smoking a cigarette in South Bend, Indiana. Monkeys can breed any time of the year. Spider Monkeys have appeared in more films than any other monkey. Monkeys express affection by grooming each other.


@medicchristy: Here are a few facts that might help you out in your report:

When a monkey yawns, it either means he is mad or tired. Monkeys always peel their bananas before eating them. Howler monkeys are the loudest of the monkeys and can be heard from 10 miles away. In the wild, monkeys live in groups, known as troops. They travel together to find food.


I am doing a project in my biology class on primates, specifically monkeys. Does anyone have some interesting facts that I could include in my report on monkeys?


@anon70178: I didn't see anywhere in the article that stated frogs were primates.


a frog is not a primate.

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