Who and What are Primates?

Primates are mammals that typically have large highly developed brains, forward-facing color vision, flexible hands and feet with opposable thumbs, and fingernails. (Typically, but not always.)

Primates have slower developmental rates than other similarly sized mammals, reaching maturity later in life, but with longer overall lifespans than many similarly-sized species.

With the exception of humans, who live throughout the globe, most primates live in tropical or subtropical regions. But don’t be fooled. Some also live in semi-deserts, alongside swamps, in cold mountainous regions, on rocky cliffs, or in cities.

The biological order “Primates” is divided into the following four classifications:


bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, and orangutans




baboons, capuchin monkeys, colobus monkeys, drills, geladas, green monkeys, grivets, guenons, howler monkeys, kipunjis, langurs, lutungs, macaques, malbroucks, mandrills, mangabeys, marmosets, muriquis, night monkeys, patas monkeys, proboscis monkeys, sakis, snub-nosed monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, surilis, swamp monkeys, talapoins, tamarins, tantalus monkeys, titis, uakaris, vervets, and woolly monkeys


 the oldest, most “primitive” order of primates includes angwantibos, galagos or bushbabies, lemurs, lorises, pottos, and, somewhat controversially, tarsiers

There are an estimated 522 primates species, plus an additional estimated 182 subspecies, with astounding diversity. 

70% of primate species and subspecies are threatened by extinction.

Where in the World Do Nonhuman Primates Live?

Nonhuman primates live in regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most (but not all) live in tropical climates along or near the equator. the map below provides reference points. Some live in quite diverse habitats ranging from semi-deserts to snowy mountains.

    • Great apes live in Africa and Asia
    • Small apes live only in Asia
    • Monkeys live naturally in Africa, Asia, and Latin America
      • Introduced* populations live in Gibraltar, on a few Caribbean islands, and in parts of the United States. These are not their native or natural homes
    • Prosimians live in Africa and Asia

An introduced species is a species living outside its native distributional range, which has arrived there by human activity, either deliberate or accidental. Non-native species can have various effects on the local ecosystem. Introduced species that become established and spread beyond the place of introduction are called invasive species. The impact of introduced species is highly variable. Some have a negative effect on a local ecosystem, while other introduced species may have no negative effect or only minor impact.

Learn more about where in the world primates live and the importance of preserving and protecting their natural habitats.

New World and Old World Monkeys

What's the Difference?

The terms “Old World” and “New World” are becoming obsolete in favor of “Afro-Eurasian” and “American” monkeys.

The “Afro-Eurasian” moniker is also referred to as “African-Eurasian monkeys”. 

  • Found from southern Mexico to Central and South America, except in desert regions, coldest ecosystems, and the highest mountains
  • They mostly inhabit tropical rainforests
  • Their noses are flatter and nostrils are further apart and side-facing, that is, pointing outward rather than downward
  • Most have 36 teeth
  • They are smaller-bodied and more slender with long narrow hands
  • Their thumbs, when present, are not opposable
  • Most have prehensile or partially prehensile tails
  • Many lack trichromatic vision, sometimes based on gender within a species
  • Most are arboreal, some living so high in the canopy that studies of their behaviors and lifestyles are limited (because humans can’t effectively observe them)
  • Some live in small monogamous family groups; some live in troops of up to 500 individuals
  • They include the only nocturnal monkey and the world’s smallest monkey
  • They descend from African simians that colonized South America about 35 million years ago
  • Include capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, marmosets, muriquis, night monkeys, saki monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, tamarins, titis, woolly monkeys, and uakaris
  • No nonhuman apes are endemic to the Americas
  • No prosimians are endemic to the Americas 
  • Found throughout Africa, except for the most arid deserts, and in southern Asia, with a few species as far north as Japan and the mountains of China
  • They inhabit a wide variety of ecosystems including tropical rainforests, savannas, shrublands, and cold mountains
  • Their nostrils are close together and tend to point downward
  • They have 32 teeth
  • Most are medium to large monkeys and include the largest of the world’s monkeys
  • Most have opposable thumbs
  • Their tails are never prehensile
  • Many species have cheek pouches to hold food, and many have thick pads (ischial callosities) on their buttocks
  • Some are arboreal, some terrestrial, and some both (referred to as semi-terrestrial)
  • Most have trichromatic vision
  • They are more closely related to the apes and, therefore, humans than they are to the American monkeys
  • Include baboons, colobus monkeys, drills, geladas, green monkeys, grivets, guenons, kipunjis, langurs, leaf monkeys, macaques, malbroucks, mandrills, mangabeys, langurs, patas monkeys, proboscis monkeys, snub-nosed monkeys, surilis, swamp monkeys, talapoins, tantalus monkeys, and vervets
  • All apes are found in Afro-Eurasian regions of the world
  • Prosimians are also found in Afro-Eurasian regions
Want to Know More About Your Primate Cousins?

Have you ever heard of a talapoin?

Find your favorites…and many species you’ve probably never heard of!

You’ll be awed and intrigued by the diversity of primate species. Learn about your favorites. You may be surprised by what you’ll find!