Children: What is a primate?

MASC teaches about primates, so what is a primate?

Primates are broken down into three groups: prosimians, monkeys and apes.

All primates share some characteristics like forward-facing eyes, big brains, long life stories, hands with five fingers that can hold things with nails not claws, teeth and they like to sit upright but the three groups are different in many ways.


These are bushbabys (picture), lemurs and other primates called lorises, tarsiers and pottos. They have wet noses where monkeys and apes have dry noses. These are mostly active at night, though many lemurs are active in the day. They have tails which apes do not.

They are smaller than apes and most monkeys. They have a ‘power grasp’ which means that they can make a fist to grab things (like insects) but cannot use their hands in the precise ways that monkeys and apes can. Prosimians are not found in South America but Asia (lorises and tarsiers), Africa (bushbabys and pottos) and Madagascar (lemurs).

Pygmy marmosets


Monkeys are what most people think of when they think of primates. They have tails (even if they are very short like some macaques). They range in size from a tiny pygmy marmoset (picture) to a big male mandrill.

All primates found in South America are monkeys. Some South American monkeys are the only primates with tails that can hold on like another hand. Monkeys live both in the trees and on the ground. Most of them eat fruit and leaves but some eat insects and even small animals and birds.



Apes do not have tails. Humans are apes as well as gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gibbons. Gibbons (picture) are known as lesser apes while all the others are called great apes.

Apes have very precise hands and can many can make tools. They are larger than monkeys except gibbons. They are very clever and are our closest relatives. They are often the most threatened when a habitat is in trouble because they are so large.

To learn about some species of primate see our factsheets.


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