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5.3: Key Traits Used to Distinguish Between Primate Taxa

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    • Stephanie Etting

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    When placing primate species into specific taxonomic groups, we focus on dental characteristics, behavioral adaptations, and locomotor adaptations. Differences in these characteristics across groups reflect constraints of evolutionary history as well as variation in adaptations.

    Dental Characteristics

    Teeth may not seem like the most exciting topic with which to start, but we can learn a tremendous amount about an organism from its teeth. First, teeth are vital to survival. Wild animals do not have the benefit of knives and forks; they rely on their teeth to process their food. Because of this, teeth of any species have evolved to reflect what that organism eats and therefore have a lot to tell us about their diet. Second, variation in tooth size, shape, and number reveals an organism’s evolutionary history. Some taxa have more teeth than others or different forms of teeth. Furthermore, differences in teeth between males and females can tell us about competition over mates (see Chapter 6). Lastly, teeth are overly represented in the fossil record. Enamel is hard, and there is little meat on jaws so carnivores and scavengers often leave them behind. Sometimes, the only remains we have from an extinct taxon is its teeth!

    Yawning baboon with large teeth.
    Figure 5.5: This picture of an open-mouthed Hamadryas baboon demonstrates the diastema between his upper canine and front teeth. This space is taken up by his lower canine when he closes his mouth. Credit: Ha,ha,ha …. (14986571843) by Rolf Dietrich Brecher from Germany is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

    Like other mammals, primates are heterodont: they have multiple types of teeth that are used for different purposes. We have incisors for slicing; premolars and molars for grinding up our food; and canines, which most primates (not humans) use as weapons against predators and each other. The sizes of canines vary across species and can often be sexually dimorphic, with males tending to have larger canines than females. Some nonhuman primates hone, or sharpen, their canines by gnashing the teeth together to sharpen the sides. The upper canine sharpens on the first lower premolar and the lower canine sharpens on the front of the upper canine. As canines get larger, they require a space to fit in order for the jaws to close. This space between the teeth is called a diastema (Figure 5.5).

    We use a dental formula to specify how many incisors, canines, premolars, and molars are in each quadrant of the mouth (half of the top or bottom). For example, Figure 5.6 shows half of the lower teeth of a human. You can see that in half of the mandible, there are two incisors, one canine, two premolars, and three molars. This dental formula is written as 2:1:2:3. (The first number represents the number of incisors, followed by the number of canines, premolars, and molars).

    Human mandible with four types of teeth.
    Figure 5.6: This drawing shows half of the human mandible. With the four types of teeth labeled, you can determine that the dental formula is 2:1:2:3. Credit: Gray997 by Henry Vandyke Carter, original in Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body, Plate 997, is in the public domain.

    To determine the dental formula, you need to be able to identify the different types of teeth. You can recognize incisors because they often look like spatulas with a flat, blade-like surface. Premolars and molars can be differentiated by the number of cusps that they have. Cusps are the bumps that you can feel with your tongue on the surface of your back teeth. Premolars are smaller than molars and, in primates, often have one or two cusps on them. Molars are bigger, providing a larger chewing surface, and have more cusps. Depending on the species and whether you’re looking at upper or lower teeth, primate molars can have between three and five cusps. Molar cusps can also vary between taxa in how they are arranged; you will learn more about this later in this chapter. Canines are often easy to distinguish because, in most taxa, they are much longer and more conical than the other teeth.

    Teeth also directly reflect an organism’s diet. Primates are known to eat a wide range of plant parts, insects, gums, and, rarely, meat. While all primates eat a variety of foods, what differs among primates are the proportions of each of these food items in the diet. That is, two primates living in the same forest may be eating the same foods but in vastly different proportions, and so we would categorize them as different dietary types. The most common dietary types among primates are those whose diets consist primarily of fruit (frugivores), those who eat mostly insects (insectivores), and those who eat primarily leaves (folivores). A few primate taxa are gummivores, specializing in eating gums and saps, but we will only focus on the adaptations found in the three primary dietary groups.


    Plants want animals to eat their fruits because, in doing so, animals eat the seeds of the fruit and then disperse them far away from the parent plant. Therefore, plants often “advertise” fruits by making them colorful and easy to spot, full of easy-to-digest sugars that make them taste good and, often, easy to chew and digest (not being too fibrous or tough). For these reasons, frugivores often do not need a lot of specialized traits to consume a diet rich in fruits (Figure 5.7). Their molars usually have a broad chewing surface with low, rounded cusps (referred to as bunodont molars). Frugivores have large incisors for slicing through the outer coatings on fruit, and they tend to have stomachs, colons, and small intestines that are intermediate in terms of size and complexity between insectivores and folivores (Chivers and Hladik 1980). They are also usually of intermediate body size between the other two dietary types. Because fruit does not contain protein, frugivores must supplement their diet with protein from insects, leaves, and/or seeds. Frugivores who get protein by eating seeds evolved to have thicker enamel on their teeth to protect them from excessive wear.

    Upper teeth and maxilla of a frugivore monkey.
    Figure 5.7: Frugivores are characterized by large incisors, bunodont molars, and digestive tracts that are intermediate in complexity between the other two dietary types. Credit: Papio papio (Guinea baboon).jpg by Phil Myers on Animal Diversity Web is under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 License.


    While insects can be difficult to find and catch, they are easy to chew and digest. As a result, insectivorous primates usually have small molars with pointed cusps to puncture the exoskeleton of the insects (Figure 5.8), and they have simple stomachs and colons with a long small intestine to process the insects. Nutritionally, insects provide a lot of protein and fat but are not plentiful enough in the environment to support large-bodied animals, so insectivores are usually the smallest of the primates.

    Mandible, upper teeth, and maxilla of insectivore tarsier.
    Figure 5.8: Insectivores need sharp, pointed molar cusps to break through the exoskeletons of insects. Insects are easy to digest, so these primates have simple digestive tracts. Credit: Tarsier (an insectivor)’s teeth original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology (2nd ed.) by Stephanie Etting is a collective work under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 License. [Includes Lower_lateral1942 by Phil Myers on Animal Diversity Web, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0; Ventral by Phil Myers on Animal Diversity Web, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.]


    Plants rely on leaves to get energy from the sun, so plants do not want animals to eat their leaves (unlike their fruit). As a result, plants evolved to try to discourage animals from eating their leaves. Leaves often carry toxins, taste bitter, are very fibrous and difficult to chew, and are made of large cellulose molecules that are difficult to break down into usable sugars. Thus, animals who eat leaves need a lot of specialized traits (Figure 5.9). Folivorous primates have broad molars with high, sharp cusps connected by shearing crests. These molar traits allow folivores to physically break down fibrous leaves when chewing. Folivores then chemically break down cellulose molecules into usable energy. To do this, some folivores have complex stomachs with multiple compartments, while others have large, long intestines and special gut bacteria that can break up cellulose. Folivores are usually the largest bodied of all primates, and they tend to spend a large portion of their day digesting their food, so they are less active than frugivores or insectivores.

    Upper teeth and maxilla of a monkey shows folivore traits.
    Figure 5.9: To derive energy from leaves, folivores, like this Trachypithecus (dusky leaf monkey), have smaller incisors and high sharp molar cusps connected by shearing crests. Credit: Trachypithecus obscurus (dusky leaf monkey) upper teeth by Phil Myers on Animal Diversity Web has been modified (background removed, labels added by Stephanie Etting) is under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 License.

    Behavioral Adaptations

    Since Chapter 6 is dedicated to primate behavior, we will only briefly discuss variations in activity patterns, social grouping, and habitat use. Primate groups differ in activity patterns: whether they are active during the day (diurnal), at night (nocturnal), or through the 24-hour period (cathemeral). Primate taxa vary in social groupings: some are primarily solitary, others live in pairs, and still others live in groups of varying sizes and compositions. Lastly, some taxa are primarily arboreal while others are more terrestrial.

    Locomotor Adaptations

    Finally, primate groups vary in their adaptations for different forms of locomotion, or how they move around. Living primates are known to move by vertical clinging and leaping, quadrupedalism, brachiation, and bipedalism.

    Vertical clinging and leaping is when an animal grasps a vertical branch with its body upright, pushes off with long hind legs, and then lands on another vertical support branch (Figure 5.10a). Animals who move in this way usually have longer legs than arms, long fingers and toes, and smaller bodies. Vertical clinger leapers also tend to have elongated ankle bones, which serve as a lever to help them push off with their legs and leap to another branch (Figure 5.10b).

    Movement of vertical clinger and leaper, and tarsier skeleton.
    Figure 5.10: Vertical clingers and leapers have longer legs than arms, long lower backs, and long fingers and toes. They also have elongated ankle bones to help them push off when leaping. Credit: a. Propithecus vertical clinging and leaping by Terpsichores is under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License. b. Tarsier skeleton by Emőke Dénes has been modified (background removed) by Stephanie Etting and is under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License. Original Spectral tarsier (Tarsius tarsier) skeleton at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, England.)

    Quadrupedalism, walking on all fours, is the most common form of locomotion among primates. Quadrupedal animals usually have legs and arms that are about the same length and a tail for balance. Arboreal quadrupeds (Figure 5.11a) usually have shorter arms and legs and longer tails, while terrestrial quadrupeds (Figure 5.11b) have longer arms and legs and, often, shorter tails. These differences relate to the lower center of gravity needed by arboreal quadrupeds for balance in trees and the longer tail required for better balance when moving along the tops of branches. Terrestrial quadrupeds have longer limbs to help them cover more distance more efficiently.

    Arboreal quadrupedal monkey and terrestrial quadrupedal monkey.
    Figure 5.11: Two examples of quadrupedal primates. The capuchin monkey skeleton on the left (a) is a typical arboreal quadruped with shorter arms and legs, longer fingers and toes, and a long tail. The baboon skeleton on the right (b) is a terrestrial quadruped with relatively long arms and legs, shorter fingers and toes, and a short tail. Credit: a. Capuchin monkey skeleton by Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville is in the public domain. b. Baboon by Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville is in the public domain.

    The third form of locomotion seen in primates is brachiation, the way of moving you used if you played on “monkey bars” as a child. Brachiation involves swinging below branches by the hands (Figure 5.12a). To be an efficient brachiator, a primate needs to have longer arms than legs, flexible shoulders and wrists, a short lower back, and no tail (Figure 5.12b). Some primates move via semi-brachiation, in which they swing below branches but do not have all of the same specializations as brachiators. Semi-brachiators have flexible shoulders, but their arms and legs are about the same length, which is useful because they are quadrupedal when on the ground. They also use long prehensile tails as a third limb when swinging (Figure 5.13). The underside of the tail has a tactile pad, resembling your fingerprints, for better grip.

    Primate swinging through branches and gibbon skeleton.
    Figure 5.12: a. Example of brachiation. b. Skeleton of a typical brachiator, showing longer arms than legs, short back, and lack of a tail. Credit: a. Brachiator (Figure 5.9b) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. b. Skeleton of Gibbon (Giboia) by Joxerra Aihartza is under a Free Art License.
    Spider monkey swinging below a rope.
    Figure 5.13. Spider monkeys are considered semi-brachiators, as they can swing below branches but use their tails as a third limb. On the ground they move via quadrupedal locomotion. Credit: Ateles-fusciceps 54724770b by LeaMaimone is under a CC BY 2.5 License.

    Lastly, humans move around on two feet, called bipedalism. Some nonhuman primates will occasionally travel on two feet but do so awkwardly and never for long distances. Among mammals, only humans have evolved to walk with a striding gait on two legs as a primary form of locomotion.

    This page titled 5.3: Key Traits Used to Distinguish Between Primate Taxa is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephanie Etting (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.