The Evolution of Primates

Characteristics of Primates

All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees, as they all descended from tree-dwellers. This arboreal heritage of primates has resulted in hands and feet that are adapted for climbing, or brachiation (swinging through trees using the arms). These adaptations include, but are not limited to: 1) a rotating shoulder joint, 2) a big toe that is widely separated from the other toes (except humans) and thumbs sufficiently separated from fingers to allow for gripping branches, and 3) stereoscopic vision, two overlapping fields of vision from the eyes, which allows for the perception of depth and gauging distance. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger than those of most other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one offspring per pregnancy, and a trend toward holding the body upright.

Order Primates is divided into two groups: Strepsirrhini (“turned-nosed”) and Haplorhini (“simple-nosed”) primates. Strepsirrhines, also called the wet-nosed primates, include prosimians like the bush babies and pottos of Africa, the lemurs of Madagascar, and the lorises of Southeast Asia. Haplorhines, or dry-nosed primates, include tarsiers (Figure) and simians (New World monkeys, Old World monkeys, apes, and humans). In general, strepsirrhines tend to be nocturnal, have larger olfactory centers in the brain, and exhibit a smaller size and smaller brain than anthropoids. Haplorhines, with a few exceptions, are diurnal, and depend more on their vision. Another interesting difference between the strepsirrhines and haplorhines is that strepsirrhines have the enzymes for making vitamin C, while haplorhines have to get it from their food.

Image depicts a Tarsier in a tree.
A Philippine tarsier. This tarsier, Carlito syrichta, is one of the smallest primates—about 5 inches long, from nose to the base of the tail. The tail is not shown, but is about twice the length of the body. Note the large eyes, each of which is about the same size as the animal's brain, and the long hind legs. (credit: mtoz (, via Wikimedia Commons)