The Evolution of Primates

Evolution of Primates

The first primate-like mammals are referred to as proto-primates. They were roughly similar to squirrels and tree shrews in size and appearance. The existing fossil evidence (mostly from North Africa) is very fragmented. These proto-primates remain largely mysterious creatures until more fossil evidence becomes available. Although genetic evidence suggests that primates diverged from other mammals about 85 MYA, the oldest known primate-like mammals with a relatively robust fossil record date to about 65 MYA. Fossils like the proto-primate Plesiadapis (although some researchers do not agree that Plesiadapis was a proto-primate) had some features of the teeth and skeleton in common with true primates. They were found in North America and Europe in the Cenozoic and went extinct by the end of the Eocene.

The first true primates date to about 55 MYA in the Eocene epoch. They were found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. These early primates resembled present-day prosimians such as lemurs. Evolutionary changes continued in these early primates, with larger brains and eyes, and smaller muzzles being the trend. By the end of the Eocene epoch, many of the early prosimian species went extinct due either to cooler temperatures or competition from the first monkeys.

Anthropoid monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene epoch. By 40 million years ago, evidence indicates that monkeys were present in the New World (South America) and the Old World (Africa and Asia). New World monkeys are also called Platyrrhini—a reference to their broad noses (Figure). Old World monkeys are called Catarrhini—a reference to their narrow, downward-pointed noses. There is still quite a bit of uncertainty about the origins of the New World monkeys. At the time the platyrrhines arose, the continents of South American and Africa had drifted apart. Therefore, it is thought that monkeys arose in the Old World and reached the New World either by drifting on log rafts or by crossing land bridges. Due to this reproductive isolation, New World monkeys and Old World monkeys underwent separate adaptive radiations over millions of years. The New World monkeys are all arboreal, whereas Old World monkeys include both arboreal and ground-dwelling species. The arboreal habits of the New World monkeys are reflected in the possession of prehensile or grasping tails by most species. The tails of Old World monkeys are never prehensile and are often reduced, and some species have ischial callosities—thickened patches of skin on their seats.

The photo shows a black monkey with its mouth open in a howl.
A New World monkey. The howler monkey is native to Central and South America. It makes a call that sounds like a lion roaring. (credit: Xavi Talleda)

Apes evolved from the catarrhines in Africa midway through the Cenozoic, approximately 25 million years ago. Apes are generally larger than monkeys and they do not possess a tail. All apes are capable of moving through trees, although many species spend most their time on the ground. When walking quadrupedally, monkeys walk on their palms, while apes support the upper body on their knuckles. Apes are more intelligent than monkeys, and they have larger brains relative to body size. The apes are divided into two groups. The lesser apes comprise the family Hylobatidae, including gibbons and siamangs. The great apes include the genera Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos) Gorilla (gorillas), Pongo (orangutans), and Homo (humans) (Figure).

Image depicts various skeletons of great ape primates, including gibbon, chimp, and human. The skeletons have significant similarities, but their posture and structures differ. Most apes have much longer arms relative to their height than do humans. Only humans and gibbons have an upright posture. And gorillas, chimps, and orangutans have much larger vertebrae (relative to their size) in the neck and upper back.
Primate skeletons. All great apes have a similar skeletal structure. (credit: modification of work by Tim Vickers)

The very arboreal gibbons are smaller than the great apes; they have low sexual dimorphism (that is, the sexes are not markedly different in size), although in some species, the sexes differ in color; and they have relatively longer arms used for swinging through trees (Figurea). Two species of orangutan are native to different islands in Indonesia: Borneo (P. pygmaeus) and Sumatra (P. abelii). A third orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, was reported in 2017 from the Batang Toru forest in Sumatra. Orangutans are arboreal and solitary. Males are much larger than females and have cheek and throat pouches when mature. Gorillas all live in Central Africa. The eastern and western populations are recognized as separate species, G. berengei and G. gorilla. Gorillas are strongly sexually dimorphic, with males about twice the size of females. In older males, called silverbacks, the hair on the back turns white or gray. Chimpanzees (Figureb) are the species considered to be most closely related to humans. However, the species most closely related to the chimpanzee is the bonobo. Genetic evidence suggests that chimpanzee and human lineages separated 5 to 7 MYA, while chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and bonobo (Pan paniscus) lineages separated about 2 MYA. Chimpanzees and bonobos both live in Central Africa, but the two species are separated by the Congo River, a significant geographic barrier. Bonobos are slighter than chimpanzees, but have longer legs and more hair on their heads. In chimpanzees, white tail tufts identify juveniles, while bonobos keep their white tail tufts for life. Bonobos also have higher-pitched voices than chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are more aggressive and sometimes kill animals from other groups, while bonobos are not known to do so. Both chimpanzees and bonobos are omnivorous. Orangutan and gorilla diets also include foods from multiple sources, although the predominant food items are fruits for orangutans and foliage for gorillas.

Image shows a gibbon mother and baby.
Lesser and great apes. This white-cheeked gibbon (a) is a lesser ape. In gibbons of this species, females and infants are buff and males are black. This young chimpanzee (b) is one of the great apes. It possesses a relatively large brain and has no tail. (credit a: MAC. credit b: modification of work by Aaron Logan)