Order Primates of class Mammalia includes lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys, and the apes, which include humans. Non-human primates live primarily in tropical or subtropical regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. They range in size from the mouse lemur at 30 grams (1 ounce) to the mountain gorilla at 200 kilograms (441 pounds). The characteristics and evolution of primates are of particular interest to us as they allow us to understand the evolution of our own species.
All primate species have adaptations for climbing trees, as they all descended from tree-dwellers, although not all species are arboreal. This arboreal heritage of primates resulted in hands and feet that are adapted for brachiation, or climbing and swinging through trees. These adaptations include, but are not limited to 1) a rotating shoulder joint, 2) a big toe that is widely separated from the other toes and thumbs that are widely separated from fingers (except humans), which allow for gripping branches, and 3) stereoscopic vision, two overlapping visual fields, which allows for the depth perception necessary to gauge distance. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger than those of many other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one offspring per pregnancy, and a trend toward holding the body upright.
Order Primates is divided into two groups: prosimians and anthropoids. Prosimians include the bush babies of Africa, the lemurs of Madagascar, and the lorises, pottos, and tarsiers of Southeast Asia. Anthropoids include monkeys, lesser apes, and great apes (Figure 15.47). In general, prosimians tend to be nocturnal, smaller in size than anthropoids, and have relatively smaller brains compared to anthropoids.