Maybe you just watched a film about Madagascar and met some lemurs jumping and running through the forest. Maybe you visited the zoo and saw gorillas grooming each other and eating leaves. Maybe you passed an elementary school and saw kids swinging on the monkey bars. Or maybe you just looked at your thumb as you picked up a carrot to eat it and thought “wow, that’s pretty cool I can pick things up like that!” In all these scenarios, you are contemplating what it means to be a primate.

One of the important things to know as we ask “what makes a primate a primate” is that the primate characteristics we’ll see are all built on mammal characteristics. All primates are mammals. This means that based on what we know about mammals, we can assume some basic things about how primates are put together, how they function, and what they do. Some mammals are pictured below so when you look at the table below about mammal characteristics, you will be able to look for those traits in these pictures.
Black rhinoceros
Copyright 2000 Greg and Marybeth Dimijian
Copyright 2001 California Academy of Sciences
Copyright 2001 California Academy of Sciences
Children of the Dai minority in a schoolyard
Copyright 1993 Ethan Michelson


This means they can

They have

Maintain and change body temperature
hair to insulate, sweat glands to cool off, and are “warm-blooded” so unlike reptiles, they don’t have to be in a sunny spot to stay warm. LOOK AT the monkey above from the genus Ateles, with lots of hair and sitting in the shade
Nutritional Efficiency
Eat and digest a lot to keep themselves going
a hard palate that divides chewing and breathing apparatus so they can eat and breathe at the same time, two sets of teeth over the lifetime and several different kinds of teeth for different functions. LOOK AT the children (Homo sapiens) above with their first set of teeth "baby teeth"
Locomotion and Posture
Move in many different ways
a variety of options when traveling through the environment and seeking food. THINK ABOUT how the different animals pictured above move in different ways
Multiple, Developed Life Stages
Spread growth and development over a longer period
four main stages: In Utero, Infancy, Juvenile and Adult. Humans add CHILDHOOD between Infancy and Juvenile. LOOK AT the Homo sapiens children pictured above
Behavioral Flexibility
Change behavior to cope with changes in the environment
a better chance of using resources, surviving and reproducing due to larger brains.LOOK AT the different environments in which we find these mammals - the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) on grass near water, the monkey (Ateles) in a tree, the aardvark (Orycteropus afer) on hard-packed dirt and the children (Homo sapiens) in a man-made schoolyard

See Morbeck, Galloway and Zihlman's book The Evolving Female for more on what it means to be a mammal and how primates build on those mammal characteristics

So What Makes a Primate a Primate?

We look at THREE kinds of evidence:

Skeletal Features

Primate Evolutionary Trends

Primate Behavior

Note: The primate characterisitics below are drawn mainly from Falk's Primate Diversity, with additional information from Fleagle's Primate Adaptation and Evolution.


Related to TEETH and SNOUT

Vervet monkey
Copyright 1999 Greg and Marybeth Dimijian
Vervet monkey (Catarrhini)
Copyright 2000 Greg and Marybeth Dimijian

Related to EYES and EARS

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) adult male
Copyright 2005 David Bygott
Image to come

Related to ARMS and LEGS

Image to come
Image to come

Related to FINGERS and TOES

Adult male olive baboon (Papio anubis) eating meat
Copyright 2005 David Bygott
Ring-tailed lemurs
Copyright 2000 Greg and Marybeth Dimijian


Indri sitting in tree
Copyright 2000 California Academy of Sciences
Image to Come
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) mother with newborn infant
Copyright 2005 David Bygott
Image to Come


So what do primates DO that makes them primates? They spend time

Public Domain Image
Image to come
Image to come