Biology » Vertebrates » The Evolution of Primates

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. The oldest known primate-like mammals with a relatively robust fossil record is Plesiadapis (although some researchers do not agree that Plesiadapis was a proto-primate). Fossils of this primate have been dated to approximately 55 million years ago. Plesiadapiforms were proto-primates that 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 were found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa in the Eocene Epoch. 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 (see the figure below). Old World monkeys are called Catarrhini—a reference to their narrow 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 arboreal and ground-dwelling species.

The photo shows a black monkey with its mouth open in a howl.

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. Apes are more intelligent than monkeys, and they have relatively larger brains proportionate 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) (see figure (a) below), Gorilla (gorillas), Pongo (orangutans), and Homo (humans) (see figure (b) below). 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); and they have relatively longer arms used for swinging through trees.

Part a shows a chimpanzee. Part b shows the skeletons of a gibbon, human, chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan. The skeletons are very similar and vary in the length of the limbs, posture, and shape and size of the head.

The (a) chimpanzee is one of the great apes. It possesses a relatively large brain and has no tail. (b) All great apes have a similar skeletal structure. (credit a: modification of work by Aaron Logan; credit b: modification of work by Tim Vickers)

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