Video, Lessons, and Activities

Activities for understanding where primates live and the importance of preserving and protecting their natural habitats

Where in the world do nonhuman primates live? Why should you know this? Or even care? Nonhuman primates inhabit some of the most biologically rich and diverse ecosystems in the world—ecosystems that supply most of the Earth’s oxygen, including the oxygen that you and I breathe in every moment no matter where in the world we live. Do we have your attention now? As indicator species of the health of their ecosystems, if nonhuman primates are at risk, so too are all other species with whom they share their ecosystems…ultimately putting us all at risk. Knowing where they live tells us about the habitats that we all need to protect through our daily choices. 

Saving one species saves many, including us. 

In this lesson, a short video takes you on a tour of the world’s continents to learn where nonhuman primates’ habitats naturally occur and which species live there. Human primates, of course, inhabit every continent. What happens when our worlds collide? The video is the inspiration piece for the lessons and activities that follow. Together, they promote discussion and understanding around the need to preserve and protect natural habitats and those who live in them.

Learning Goals and Objectives are clearly outlined below.

Have fun while learning!



Five activities bring you on a journey to discover where in the world primates live and why we need to preserve and protect their natural habitats. Students can work in teams or individually.

Black-and-gold howler monkeys live the rainforests of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and northernmost Argentina.

Here’s What You’ll Learn

  • World geography as pertains to natural primate distribution and habitats
  • The continents on which nonhuman primates are native
  • That human primates inhabit all continents
  • The natural worldwide distribution of nonhuman primates
  • What primates are and the differences in their biological order
  • The differences between great apes, lesser apes, monkeys, and prosimians
  • The differences between Afro-Eurasian and American monkeys


  • Learn that human primates inhabit all continents and impact the viability of our nonhuman cousins
  • Understand the need to protect nonhuman primate habitats and, thereby, the primates that live in them
  • Understand where in the world nonhuman primates belong and where they do not belong
  • Consider the ethical dilemmas inherent in keeping nonhuman primates where they do not belong
  • Understand that over 66% of primate species are at risk of extinction

Lesson developed by Debra Curtin, 2016, revised 2021.


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.

Are all primates monkeys? NO!

Are all monkeys primates? YES!

Did you know that you are a primate? In fact, you are a great ape.

So, if all primates are NOT monkeys, who and what are primates? 

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, 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.

What can you do to protect them? Step 1 is to learn about them! And that’s what you’re doing now.

What Does It Mean?
Here are a few definitions to help.

Genus (plural, genera):
A biological classification, or ranking, of living beings that includes a group(s) of species that are structurally similar or “related” to one another through evolution.

Placental Mammals:
Any member of the mammal family characterized by the presence of a placenta, which facilitates exchange of nutrients and wastes between the blood of the mother and that of the fetus.

Opposable thumb:
A thumb that can be placed opposite the fingers of the same hand. Opposable thumbs allow the digits to grasp and handle objects and are a characteristic of primates.

Relating to, or constituting the tropical American biogeographic region that extends south, east, and west from the central plateau of Mexico.

Check out the Glossary for more definitions.

Research and Learn:

Explore the Helpful Resources, above, to learn about the differences between great apes, lesser apes, monkeys, and prosimians, including:

  • What are their major differentiating characteristics?
  • Who has tails? Who does not have tails?
  • What are the differences in where and how they live?
  • Who lives in trees? Who lives on the ground? Who lives in deserts? Who lives in mountains? Who lives in tropical rainforests?
  • What are the differences in how and what they eat?
  • What does their food choices tell you about where they live? How does where they live tell you about their food choices?
  • Who is active only at night? Who is active only in day? Who is active day and night?
  • Who lives in family groups?
  • Who mates for life?
  • Who is solitary?
  • What else did you learn about their differences?
  • How do all of these characteristics determine where they live? How does where they live determine these characteristics?
American and African-Eurasian 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 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


Research and Learn:

Research and list some other differences between American and Afro-Eurasian monkeys.

How many can you find?

  • What species demonstrate those differences?
  • What countries are they from?
  • What continents are they from?
  • How do those characteristics benefit them in their natural habitats?

What Does It Mean?
​Here are a few definitions to help.

Capable of being placed opposite to something else.

Adapted for seizing, grasping, or taking hold of something.

Cheek pouches:
A sac in the cheek of certain animals in which food may be carried.

Check out the Glossary for more definitions.


Research and Learn:

Take a look at the world map below. It depicts the natural worldwide distribution of nonhuman primates.

In what countries and regions do nonhuman primates NOT naturally live?

  • Why do you think they do not live in those countries or regions of the world?
  • Why do they naturally live where they do?
  • Why might they be found in countries and regions in which they do not belong?
  • What are the physical and ethical dilemmas of keeping them in countries outside of their native habitats? Or as pets? Or in research? Or in other captive environments and situations?



Become a Primate Pro For Your Favorite Species

The mandrill is an  African monkey and the largest monkey species in the world. Who is your favorite?

The Where in the World Primates Live video lists the primate species that live on their home continents. The Primate Species Profiles page of this website lists species by the region in which they live, as well as by their biological order. To find your favorite primate species, go to the Primate Species Profiles index page, click on your favorite primate or primates, and learn more about them. You might even consider selecting a species that you’ve never heard of, rather than your favorite. You might be surprised by what you learn.

How to become a “pro” about your favorite species: write an essay or draw a picture that depicts:

  • Where the primate species lives
  • Whether the species is from the American or the Afro-Eurasian regions
  • How they live
  • What they eat
  • How they communicate
  • How their habitat influences what they eat, how they behave, and how they communicate
  • Some fun facts about the species
  • The species’ conservation status
  • The threats to the future of the species

Learn While Playing

Activities for introducing the diversity of nonhuman primate species and the habitats in which they live. 

Did you know that some monkeys live in cities? That some live in semi-deserts? And some live in snow-covered mountains?

Learn about some of the surprisingly diverse habitats that nonhuman primates call home while playing fun card games.

36 game cards are divided into 27 primate cards and 9 habitat cards. Select from 4 card games. And have fun!

Visit Primates and Their Habitats to download the card deck and for game instructions.

Here’s what the cards look like:

Copyright © New England Primate Conservancy 2016-2021. You may freely use, copy and share these Learning Activities for educational purposes. 
For questions or comments, e-mail us at [email protected]