Sunday, 6 November 2011

Your Number One Pals… the Primates

By Ryan Pearson
So, how’s it goin’? Ever wondered where all of your crazy thoughts came from? Or where your incredible good looks came from? Well, the short answer is monkeys, no, I mean apes, no, wait, I mean some crazy ancestral primate relative of both of them, and us, and of the lemurs and tarsiers. You see, all of these groups of primates have a few things in common, and you are one of them.

Firstly, they all have hands and feet adapted for grasping, a large(ish) brain & short jaws (compared to, say, an ant eater, for example). They also have forward facing eyes that are close together on their face (providing depth perception). Complex social behavior (for us this becomes less and less complex the more Jager bombs we consume) and parental care, and lastly, the monkeys and apes have a fully opposable thumb. The lowest in the evolutionary scale are the Lemurs & Tarsiers, followed by the New and Old world monkeys, and finally rounded out by the great (and not so great) Apes. So let’s meet them…

Lemurs live only in Madagascar and represent the early arboreal primates (that means they live in trees). As for more on them, I’ve got nothing because that’s all I need to know for my exam on Thursday.
A Tarsier. Bohol, Philippines. Photo. Ryan Pearson
Tarsiers live in S.E. Asia and are more closely related to monkeys and apes than Lemurs. I’ve met some of these guys on the island of Bohol in the Philippines, and heard some very interesting stories about them. Apparently if they’re taken from Bohol and kept in captivity they have a strange tendency to commit suicide. In some cases this has supposedly been accomplished by repeatedly banging their head against a wall, or simply by drowning themselves in their drinking bowl. At least, that’s what the tour guide told me. I’m not sure if it’s true but they sure are tiny, cute, and potentially tasty (no, no, I didn’t actually eat one).
Me thinking about eating a Tarsier. Photo. Diana Virkki
Time to step up (in evolutionary terms at least). Monkeys initially evolved in the ‘Old World’ – meaning Africa and Asia. But about 25mya monkeys first appeared in the New world (South America) and the two groups of monkey’s underwent adaptive radiations. Basically, that means that from one common ancestor, a bunch of new species appeared that better suited life in their new environment. This left some distinct differences between the new and old world monkeys, with the new world monkeys (such as the spider, howler, and squirrel monkeys) being entirely arboreal, and having prehensile tails. Meaning they can use them to grab onto shit and to support their weight (i.e. hang upside-down). 

Old world monkeys do not have this ability. Old world monkeys also have nostrils that open downwards (like us), whereas the new world crew have them open at the sides of their noses. Old world monkeys (like the macaque, mandrill, and baboons) can be either arboreal, or terrestrial (meaning they live on the ground like us). Again, I’ve met some of the old world monkeys. These guys below were from Malaysia, and show some striking resemblance to a number of my classmates at 4am on a Saturday night (sorry ya’ll). 
A Male Macaque in Malaysia. Photo. Ryan Pearson

A Female Macaque in Malaysia. Photo. Ryan Pearson
Apes on the other hand (excuse the pun) can brachiate. Don’t know what that is? Well, have you ever used monkey bars? Sorry to steal this line from Professor Rod Connolly, but they should be called ‘Ape bars’, because monkeys wouldn’t be able to use them as we do. That is, only apes can swing from bar to bar using just their arms…hence, they brachiate. Also, apes definitely do not have a prehensile tail, in fact, they don’t have a tail at all. They do however, have long arms, short legs, and a brain that is the biggest of all primate groups (sound like anyone you know? Aw, you little brainy ape, you!). All apes only live in the tropical regions of the Old World… well, with one little exception now (us peeps). 

How did these giants come to be you ask? Well about 20mya the apes diverged from the Old World monkeys and split into two groups, the Great Apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, humans)… and the… umm… (sorry guys) the Lesser Apes (the gibbons). Gibbons are the only members of the Lesser Apes and they’re all arboreal, gregarious (meaning sociable), and territorial (meaning don’t get in their way or they’ll FΩ©K your S#!T up!).

Now, onto the ‘Great Apes’. The Orangutan’s, critically endangered and found (occasionally) in South East Asia, are the only solitary guys in the group… might have something to do with being ranga’s. They also only eat fruit, and we all know it’s much easier to make friends over a BBQ than a fruit salad… especially if you’re a red nut. Wow, two red head jokes in the one paragraph… perhaps a bit of overkill. 

The rest of the great apes are social (or gregarious) - maybe with some exceptions in the group of you reading this article. That includes the herbivorous Gorillas, from central Africa, the dirty dirty skanks, the Chimpanzees (who’s sexual promiscuity is infamous), the smaller Bonobos from the Congo, and… us, the Homo sapiens. 

Finally, while it’s not always apparent, there are seemingly a few distinctions between us and the rest of the Apes. Firstly, we have upright posture and Bipedalism (this just means we walk upright on two legs you sicko!). And against the other apes we have comparatively larger brains (for some of us), an even shorter jaw, a shorter digestive tract, language capabilities and symbolic thought (again, I stress, only for some of us), and the manufacture and use of complex tools.

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