What is the Difference Between Monkeys and Apes?

Jessica Ellis

While both belong to the Primate family, monkeys and apes are distinctly different from one another. Millions of years ago, familial ancestors to both groups were identical, but evolution led to divisions within the family. They are both physically and evolutionarily separate, with clear distinctions apparent between them.

Monkeys have tails and are smaller than apes.
Monkeys have tails and are smaller than apes.

Primates are divided into two groups, prosimians and anthropoids. The prosimian group includes lemurs and tarsiers, and is considered the more primitive group. Anthropoids are further divided into three groups: monkeys, apes, and hominids, including humans.

Apes are broader in the chest and share genetic similarities to humans.
Apes are broader in the chest and share genetic similarities to humans.

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The monkey subgroup contains over 200 different species of monkey, including baboons, tamarins, macaques, and capuchins. It is also divided into geographical groups, with Old World monkeys inhabiting Africa and Asia, and New World monkeys living throughout Central and South America. Apes are also divided, but along terms of size. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans are called “greater apes” because of their large body size, while gibbons and siamangs are often referred to as “lesser apes.”

There are over 200 different species of monkey.
There are over 200 different species of monkey.

While both monkeys and apes share certain physical features, such as forward-facing eyes and flexible limbs, there are several physical differences between the two groups. No ape species possesses a tail, while monkeys do. Monkeys are much more used to life in trees than apes, and use their tail as a fifth limb. Additionally, monkeys are not capable of using their arms to swing between branches, as apes can. Having a tail makes monkeys ideally suited for life in the treetops, while apes seem to have evolved to live comfortably on the ground or in trees.

Two species of Chimpanzees are in the Greater Ape family.
Two species of Chimpanzees are in the Greater Ape family.

With the exception of the gibbon, apes are considerably larger than monkeys. They have broad backs and arms that are longer than their legs. Most monkeys feature chests that a longer than they are broad, and have an arm-length equal to or shorter than their legs.

The greatest differences between these primates are believed to lie in intelligence levels. Monkeys are far more similar to the primitive prosimians in brain capacity and capabilities. Apes are closer to their human counterparts, able to learn forms of sign language, use tools, and display problem solving skills. It is believed that apes, particularly chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, are much more similar to humans than they are to monkeys. Some ape species carry a 98% genetic match with humans, while monkeys are considerably less similar.

Monkeys and apes are clearly different, despite common terminology often using the words as interchangeable. One thing both share in common, however, is a high level of endangerment and extinction threats. These animals have survived for millions of years and through considerable threats to their environments. People who would like to help protect them should contact a reputable conservation agency and ask about their efforts to prevent harm from being done to our closest animal cousins.

New World monkeys live throughout Central and South America.
New World monkeys live throughout Central and South America.

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Discussion Comments


There are some species of monkey that do not have tails.


Your statement that monkeys are more used to living in trees than apes is incorrect. Two species of apes, the Gibbons and the Orangutan, are highly arboreal. In fact, no non-flying animal in the world is faster or more agile in the trees than the Gibbons apes, swinging 50 feet through the air branch to branch, at up to 35 miles an hour. They forage in the trees for bark, leaves, fruits, seeds, bugs, birds, and bird eggs. They sleep sitting up on branches with their knees up and their heads in their laps. That sounds pretty damn comfortable with life in the trees, to me.


It should be noted that a crucial primate grouping change has occurred: the order primates is now divided into Stepsirhini and Haplorhini suborders; Stepsirhini is now Infraorder Lemuriformes, with the Superfamilies Lemuriformes (Lemur) and Loriformes (Loris). Tarsiers are now under the Infraorder Tarsilformes, under the Haplorhini Suborder.

This article is a bit older, I am guessing?


@ Glasshouse- The study of genetics has unlocked many mysteries about the differences between humans, great apes, old world monkeys and new world monkeys. Genetics, in combination with other sciences, has allowed scientists to map not only the genome of humans and other primates, but the geographical evolutionary migration of different species as well.

Studying both living and extinct populations has led to discoveries of the origins of humans. DNA research has proven that the mitochondrial Eve and Y chromosomal Adam originated in Africa, somewhere near what is now the South Western Coast of Namibia.


Monkeys and apes were one in the same until they went their separate evolutionary ways some 25 to 40 million years ago. Old world monkeys like the ones in Africa shared a common ancestor with apes and humans about 25 million years ago. The evolutionary split from new world monkeys like the ones found in South America happened around 40 million years ago.

Scientists made these discoveries during the mapping of the human genome. Scientists compared the human genome to those of the different non-human apes, South American monkey, and African monkeys, enabling them to see the differences and similarities between humans, apes, and monkeys.


Some of the differences in monkeys and apes are: apes do not have tails and monkeys do, apes have rounded nasal openings and monkeys have slanted nasal openings, monkeys have web feet and apes do not, and monkeys are generally smaller.

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