The more than 600 species and subspecies of living primates are highly diverse in their dietary preferences and the habitats they occupy. In this section we’ll briefly discuss aspects of ecology, or the relationship between organisms and their physical surroundings, that impact a primate’s life, the foods they eat, and the other species with whom they interact.
Diet may be the most important variable influencing variation in primate morphology, behavior, and ecology. Most primates are omnivores who ingest a variety of foods in order to obtain appropriate levels of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fluids, but one type of food often makes up the majority of each species’ diet. You learned about the dental and digestive adaptations of frugivores (who feed primarily on fruit), folivores (whose diet consists mostly of leaves), and insectivores (who eat mainly insects) in Chapter 5, so we will not discuss them again here.
Body Size and Diet
Insects are a high-quality food, full of easily digestible protein and high in calories that meet most of a primate’s dietary needs. Although all primates will eat insects if they come upon them, those species that rely most heavily on insects tend to be the smallest. Why? Because larger primates simply cannot capture and consume enough insects every day to survive. Because of their small size (less than 150 g), spectral tarsiers (Tarsius spectrum) have a fast metabolism, which means they turn food to energy quickly, but they do not need to consume large amounts of food each day. It does not matter to a spectral tarsier that a grasshopper only weighs 300 mg, because the tarsier (Tarsius) itself is so small that one grasshopper is a good-size meal (Figure 6.4a). That same grasshopper is not even a snack for an adult male mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), who may weigh up to 200 kg. Fortunately for gorillas (Gorilla), their large body size means they have a slow metabolism, converting food into energy much more slowly, so they can eat lower quality food that takes longer to digest, provided there is a lot of it. For gorillas, leaves, which are hard to digest but plentiful, fit the bill (Figure 6.4b). Most medium-sized primates are highly frugivorous, and supplement their fruit based diet in ways that correspond with their size: Smaller frugivores tend to supplement with insects, while larger frugivores tend to supplement with leaves.
Food Abundance and Distribution
Nutrients are not the only dietary considerations primates must make. They must also ensure that they consume more calories than they use. The abundance and distribution of food affect energy expenditure and calorie intake because they determine how far animals must travel in search of food and how much they must compete to obtain it. Abundance refers to how much food is available in a given area while distribution refers to how food is spread out. In terms of abundance, food is either plentiful or scarce (Figure 6.5a–b). Food is distributed in one of three ways: uniformly (Figure 6.6a), in clumps (Figure 6.6b), or randomly (Figure 6.6c). In general, higher-quality foods, like fruit and insects, are less abundant and have patchier distributions than lower-quality foods, like leaves. Primates who eat fruit or insects usually have to travel farther to find food and burn more calories in the process. Abundance and distribution of food is another reason why larger primates tend to rely more heavily on leaves than either fruit or insects.
Primates are members of broader ecological communities composed of other species, including other primates, predators, parasites, and even humans. Community ecology deals with the relationships and interactions between different organisms that occupy the same habitat. Interactions with conspecifics (members of the same species) and heterospecifics (members of different species) are critical aspects of ecological communities. Some habitats support highly diverse primate communities consisting of 10 or more primate species. How can so many primate species occupy the same area and avoid competition? In most cases, the primate species that live together occupy different niches, which means they do not meet their needs for food and shelter in the exact same way. Two species can avoid competition by eating different kinds of food, living at different levels of a forest, or even searching for food at different times of day. Because tropical rainforests, like Manu National Park in Peru, are highly variable, with many habitats and many sources of food and shelter, there are many different niches for multiple species to exploit, and large primate communities can result (Figure 6.7).
Although species living in the same location often occupy different niches to avoid competition, when a resource that is important for survival or reproduction is scarce, individuals will compete to obtain that resource. This is a central tenet of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (see Chapter 2). Competition between primates takes two forms: Individuals engage in direct competition, which involves physical interaction between individuals (such as fighting), over resources that are large and worth defending (fruit is a good example of a food resource over which primates will fight). Individuals engage in indirect competition, in which there is no physical interaction between individuals, when a resource is small. Primates often engage in indirect competition for insects, like grasshoppers, that are eaten quickly, often before another individual arrives on the scene. Primates may engage in direct and/or indirect competition with members of their own group, with members of other groups of conspecifics, or with heterospecifics.
The plants and animals that primates eat are an important part of their ecological community. In addition to insects, many primates incorporate some vertebrate (animals with an internal spinal column or backbone) prey into their diet. Often, predation by primates is opportunistic, occurring because the prey happens to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve observed vervets (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) opportunistically killing lizards by smashing them against a rock or tree trunk and eating them. More rarely, hunting is deliberate and cooperative. In some chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) populations, hunts involve multiple individuals, each of whom plays a specific role and is rewarded afterward with a share of the prey that has been captured (Samuni et al. 2018).
All primates are susceptible to predation by mammalian carnivores (animals whose diet consists primarily of animal tissue (e.g., Figure 6.8a), reptiles (e.g., Figure 6.8b), or birds of prey (e.g., Figure 6.8c). Although the specific predators found in an ecological community differ based on geography, smaller primates always fall prey to a wider range of predators. Because predators are diverse in their hunting tactics, primates have evolved a wide range of tactics to avoid or escape them. We will discuss some of these behavioral adaptations later in this chapter in the section titled “Why Do Primates Live in Groups?.”
So far, we’ve discussed competitive and predator-prey interactions in primate communities. But there are some interactions (between different primate species and between primates and other species) that are mutualistic, which is when organisms of different species work together, each benefiting from the interaction or relationship. One example is seed dispersal, which is the process by which seeds move away from the plant that produced them in preparation for germination and becoming a new plant. When seeds are dispersed by animals, like primates, it is an example of mutualism. The primate eats the fruit of a plant, which provides nutrients for its body, and in the process ingests the plant’s seeds. Later, it deposits the seeds at another location as a pile of fertilizer.
Another example of mutualism is polyspecific associations, which are associations between two or more different species that are maintained by behavioral changes by at least one of the species. While some associations are short in duration, others are semi-permanent. The mutualistic benefits of polyspecific associations include one species gaining access to food that would otherwise have been inaccessible or being alerted to the presence of predators that they would not have not have known were present otherwise. In some cases, individuals seem to recognize and seek out specific members of another species. Twenty years of observations on chimpanzees and Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in the Republic of Congo has revealed social ties (some might call them friendships) between individual chimpanzees and gorillas that last for years and occur in a variety of social contexts, including play (Sanz et al. 2022).
Primates are hosts for a variety of parasites, which are organisms that live in or on another organism (the host). Parasites come in many forms and pose varying levels of danger to the host. Blood parasites cause diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Skin parasites include fleas and ticks, which feed on the host’s blood, and botflies, which lay eggs in the host’s flesh. Bot fly larvae feed on the host’s flesh as they develop and eventually (if not removed) break through the skin at maturity. Gut parasites, like tapeworms, get into the intestines and feed off of the food that is being digested by the host. Because most primates live in groups (see the “Primate Societies” section of this chapter), the tendency for social transmission of parasites, or the transfer of parasites from one individual to another, is high. Primates have evolved mechanisms to avoid parasite infection, including switching sleeping and feeding sites so as to avoid parasites. Mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) have been shown to avoid grooming infected conspecifics as well as to avoid their feces, which smell different than the feces of individuals who are not infected with parasites (Poirotte et al. 2017). Other primates, including chimpanzees, appear to self-medicate when infected with parasites by ingesting plants that have antiparasitic properties (Krief et al. 2005).
Humans are part of many primate communities and our relationship with our closest relatives is often complicated. In some areas, humans hunt primates for their meat or as trophies, or so they can sell the infants as pets. As the human population increases in size, our demand for natural resources, like wood to build houses or land on which to grow food, also increases, often at the expense of pristine primate (and other animal) habitat. As their natural habitat shrinks, primates search for food in areas occupied by humans and may be shot as crop-raiding pests. While deforestation, hunting, and the pet trade are examples of ways in which humans negatively affect the lives of primates, some human-primate interactions are beneficial. In some parts of the world primates are central to ecotourism, which focuses on nature-based attractions to educate tourists and uses economically and ecologically sustainable practices. Perhaps one of the greatest success stories of ecotourism involves the mountain gorillas of Rwanda (see Figure 6.4b). After internal conflict plagued Rwanda during the 1990s, the Virunga Mountains area developed gorilla-based tourism to aid in socioeconomic development and to bring stability to the region. This process not only helped to increase mountain gorilla populations but was also able to generate enough income to cover the operation costs of three national parks and provide income and other benefits to people living in the area (Maekawa et al. 2013). You can learn more about human-primate interactions in Appendix B: Primate Conservation.