What is a primate?

What makes a primate a primate?

With all this talk about science, the Ikea monkey and education I might have not gotten around to actually explaining what primates are and why they are important to study.  

For those of you who don’t know primates are a groups of mammals, of which humans are included, that have a general suite of traits.  There are lots of exceptions but for the most part primates have: five fingers or toes (they may look different but there are 5), prehensile hands and feet to grab onto things, an opposable thumb to manipulate objects, nails instead of claws and large forward facing eyes with colour vision.  All of these traits make for a group of mammals that are able to travel easily in trees, see very well, manipulate objects and hunt for prey if they choose to.  

Primates include lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, tarsiers, new and old world monkeys and the great apes.  Humans are great apes, as we have no tails (like all the other primates).  There is a huge diversity of primates, most are found in tropical areas, but some, like the Japanese macaque can live in the snowy mountains of Japan, using hot springs to stay warm.  

Primates are so important to our understanding of ourselves as we share a relatively close, evolutionarily speaking, common ancestor with them.  Especially chimpanzees and bonobos, who are our closest genetic primate relative, sharing 98.8% of our DNA.  Studying primates helps us understood how we evolved traits like language, culture, tool use and the motivations behind our behaviours.  

However, primates are under threat of extinction in their native habitats all over the world due to human behaviour.  We are burning down the forests in Indonesia and Borneo to create farms for palm oil, pushing orangutans out of their habitats and even dying in the fires due to the smoke and reduced food resources.  We are hunting monkeys and apes for bushmeat in Africa.  We kill families of monkeys to get a baby to use in the illegal pet trade.  
Things can get better though.  Through education we can help people understand how important it is to conserve these amazing animals that we can learn so much about ourselves from.  Organizations like the Jane Goodall Institute are doing their best to educate youth about the importance of preserving and caring for our planet to protect all animals.  

Hopefully through organizations like this and educational programs like the ones provided by Primate Tales, we can get students excited and engaged about primates so we can do more to protect them and the environments they live in.  

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