Primates

By | September 9, 2016

The primates are a family of mostly tree-dwelling animals that includes monkeys, apes, and ourselves. The first primates were small, squirrel-like animals that scampered around in the trees about the same time that the dinosaurs died out. Once the dinosaurs were gone, primates evolved into many new species, becoming larger and more intelligent over time.

FAMILY FACT FILE

Key features
■ Large brains
■ Most had forward-facing eyes
■ Grasping hands and feet
■ Most had nails, not claws

When
The earliest primates appeared about 65 million years ago. Numerous species of primate still exist today.

Darwinius (dar-WIN-ee-us)

the-only-one-fossil-of-darwinius-was-found-1983-in-frankfurt

The only one fossil of Darwinius was found in 1983 in Frankfurt, Germany


When: 47 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: Germany

Habitat: Woodlands of western Europe

Length: 2 ft (0.6 m)

Diet: Fruit and plants

Only one fossil of Darwinius has been found: a skeleton, nicknamed “Ida,” so beautifully preserved that soft fur can be seen all over the body. Even Ida’s last meal of leaves and fruit was preserved in her stomach. Darwinius looked like a lemur. An agile climber, it had “opposable thumbs,” which means that its thumbs moved the opposite way to the fingers, allowing it to grasp branches and handle food.

Sivapithecus (SEE-vah-PITH-eck-uss)

sivapithecus

This partial skull was rebuilt from broken pieces.


When: 12–7 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Nepal, Pakistan, Turkey

Habitat: Woodlands of Central Asia

Length: 5 ft (1.5 m)

Diet: Plants

Sivapithecus had the build of a chimpanzee, but its face was more like that of an orangutan, to which it was closely related. It lived in woodland, but scientists think it may have spent much of its time on the ground. It had large molar teeth (rear teeth), suggesting its diet included a lot of tough food such as grass seed gathered on the ground, although it probably also climbed trees for fruit and may have slept in trees at night.

Plesiadapis (PLEEZ-ee-ah-DAP-iss)


When: 65–60 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: N. America, Europe, and Asia

Habitat: Woodlands of N. America, Europe, and Asia

Length: 2 ft (0.6 m)

Diet: Plants

The oldest known primate is Plesiadapis, which looked more like a squirrel than a monkey. It had a bushy tail, a long snout, ratlike incisor teeth for gnawing, and eyes on the sides of its head for spotting predators. However, the rear teeth of Plesiadapis were flat like those of living primates, suggesting its diet included fruit and other soft plant foods.

Gigantopithecus (gi-GAN-toe-PITH-eck-uss)

gigantopithecus


When: 9 million–250,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: China, India, and Vietnam

Habitat: Woodlands of Asia

Length: 9 ft (2.7 m)

Diet: Plants

Twice the size of a gorilla, Gigantopithecus was the largest ape that ever lived—the King Kong of its day. Some scientists think it may be the source of the Yeti myth. Only teeth and jaws have been found. The pattern of wear suggests it fed on bamboo.

Dryopithecus (DRY-oh-PITH-eck-uss)

dryopithecus

Dryopithecus used long arms to swing under branches like a gibbon


When: 15–10 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Africa, Europe, and Asia

Habitat: Woodlands of Europe, Asia, and Africa

Length: 2 ft (0.6 m)

Diet: Plants

This primate was about the size of a chimpanzee and spent most of its life up in the trees. It had very long, strong arms, which it used for swinging from branch to branch. Like a chimp, it could also walk on all fours, but rather than walking on the knuckles of its hands as chimps do, it walked with its palms flat on the ground. It had a large brain, but was only a distant relative of human beings.

Eosimias (EE-oh-SIM-ee-uss)

eosimias


When: 45–40 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: China

Habitat: Woodlands of Asia

Length: 2 in (5 cm)

Diet: Insects and plants

Eosimias was one of the earliest primates. Unlike the enormous mammals that evolved after the age of dinosaurs, Eosimias was like a tiny fur ball and would have easily fit into the palm of a child’s hand. Its large eyes may have helped it to spot predators easily, especially at night. It probably fed on nectar and insects.

LIVING RELATIVE

the-bornean-orangutan

The Bornean orangutan

Orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling mammals today. There are two species: the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan. Both are highly intelligent, able to make and use simple tools. Both are also endangered, due to loss of their rainforest habitat.

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