Primates and Human Origin

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  • 0:01 Primate Characteristics
  • 1:43 Lemurs, Pottos, and Lorises
  • 2:23 The Tarsiers
  • 3:03 The Anthropoids
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

You probably know that you are a primate, just like gorillas and monkeys. But you may be surprised to find out how long primates have been around and how many of them are still living on Earth, which are covered in this lesson.

Primate Characteristics

Dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago. But we humans are fascinated with them nonetheless. Some have even gone so far as to imagine what life would have been like if humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. Personally, I'm glad not to know! Dinosaurs are cool, but that's not something I want to run into on my way to work, if you know what I mean.

Humans never lived alongside dinosaurs, but some of our ancient ancestors did. These early primates were likely very small and lived in trees. Actually, most primates that still live today are tree-dwelling mammals, and over the many millions of years of primate evolution they have adapted to better fit this lifestyle.

Primates may be as small as an ounce or as large as hundreds of pounds, but they all share some body features that work well with their lifestyles. Most primates have very limber hip and shoulder joints, which facilitates easy movement through tree branches. They also have five digits on their hands and feet. These digits are separate and mobile, allowing them to grasp branches and food.

Primates also have forward-facing eyes, which enhances depth perception. This is important if you're jumping from one branch to another - you need to be able to tell how far away that branch is if you want to make it! Additionally, primates have that opposable thumb that you're so familiar with. This is when the thumb is opposite to the fingers on the same hand, and it allows for grasping, handling, and manipulating objects in a variety of shapes and sizes. While not every primate has one, the opposable thumb is characteristic and sets us apart in the Animal Kingdom.

Lemurs, Pottos, and Lorises

There are a few different groups of primates. The most primitive group consists of the lemurs, pottos, and lorises. In evolution, primitive means ancient or old, not simple, so these are some of the oldest remaining primates on Earth.

These primates have all the typical primate features already mentioned, but they also have a unique big toe. This big toe is separated from the other toes and acts much like an additional thumb used for grabbing branches and food. These primates are found in tropical Africa and Southern Asia. However, because of human-caused habitat destruction, many of them (including all the lemurs) are currently endangered.

The Tarsiers

The next group of primates to branch off the evolutionary tree is the tarsiers. These are only found in Southeast Asia and are strict carnivores, feeding on insects, birds, and other tasty snacks. They are also nocturnal. Their enormous (and adorable!) eyes help them see well in the dark and avoid predators. Tarsiers also enjoy singing to one another or with each other as couples. They also have a really cool trick - they can turn their heads around 180 degrees! This is very important because, unlike you and I, they can't rotate their eyeballs to see what's going on around them.

The Anthropoids

The largest group of primates is the anthropoids. This group consists of monkeys, apes, and humans. Within this group there are two kinds of monkeys, Old World monkeys and New World monkeys, and they have been evolving separately from each other for a long, long time - over 30 million years!

Old World monkeys, which are found in Africa and Asia (the 'Old World'), include macaques, baboons, rhesus monkeys, and mandrills. Many of the Old World monkeys are tree-dwellers, but some do live on the ground. They also lack a tail, and like all monkeys, their front and hind limbs are equal in length.

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