Scientists Say: Primate

Primates are mammals with big brains, forward-facing vision, fingernails and flexible hands and feet

an orangutan standing on a branch reaches out over a body of water to touch hands with a girl crouching on a wooden platform

There are two types of primates in this photo — an orangutan and a human.

Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Primate (noun, “PRY-mate”)

Primates are a group of mammal species. This group includes humans and our close relatives in the animal family tree. Humans’ closest living cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, are primates. Those great apes share almost 99 percent of our DNA. Other great apes, such as gorillas and orangutans, are also primates. So are small apes called gibbons. Monkeys, including baboons, macaques and howler monkeys, make up another group of primates. Prosimians, such as bushbabies, lemurs and lorises, do too.

There are more than 200 species of primates. They range in size from tiny, mouse-sized lemurs to hulking gorillas. But most primates share some common traits. For one thing, primates are known for having big brains. They may not have noses as keen as some other mammals, but they boast great vision. Primates grow up slowly and live a long time, compared with other similarly sized animals. They also tend to have few offspring and live in complex social groups. Most primates live in tropical or subtropical forests. Many species live in trees.

That tree-dwelling lifestyle is where another feature of primates comes in handy. Literally. Primates’ hands are built for grasping. While other mammals have digits capped with claws or hoofs, primates often have digits with flat fingernails and sensitive finger pads that help them hold on. Humans and other primates such as chimps, gorillas and orangutans also benefit from the use of opposable thumbs, which can be bent over the hand to touch the tips of the other fingers.

In a sentence

Humans sleep much less than chimps, baboons and other primates.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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