©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Apes and monkeys are mammals. They are members of the primate family. So are humans.

Primates are animals with forward-facing eyes and very flexible arms, legs and fingers. These characteristics are adaptations for a life in the trees. When they took to the trees, the ancestors of today’s primates needed hands that grasped branches, and as they moved from branch to branch, eyesight that could accurately judge the distance between the trees.

Monkeys and apes are grouped as either ‘old world’ (living in Africa and Asia) or ‘new world’ (living in Central and South America).

Baboons are old world cheek-pouched monkeys. This adult has stored food in her cheek pouches. ©Getty Images

Baboons are old world cheek-pouched monkeys. This adult has stored food in her cheek pouches. ©Getty Images

Old world monkeys

Old world monkeys are larger and have narrow, downward pointing nostrils. Their hind legs are longer than their front ones, with flattened nails. They have padded bottoms to sit on, and tails that cannot grasp.

They are diurnal (active in daytime).


There are two groups: leaf-eating and cheek-pouched.

The smallest monkey is the pygmy marmoset at just 100g. Getty Images

The smallest monkey is the pygmy marmoset at just 100g. Getty Images

New world monkeys

New world monkeys vary greatly in size. They have long tails, some of them prehensile, or able to grasp. They don’t have buttock padding or cheek pouches.  

New world monkeys are are divided into two groups. One group includes smaller tamarins and marmosets and the other group includes capuchins, spider, woolly monkeys among many others.  

There are 235 species, or kinds, of primate today.

They are divided into two groups:

  • a few prosimians (say proh-sim-ee-uns)
  • lots of anthropoids (Say ann-throw-poy-ds).
A sifaka lemur ©Getty Images

A sifaka lemur ©Getty Images


This group includes lemurs, lorises and tarsiers. These animals have a lower intelligence than those in the other group, resembling more closely the primate ancestors. Most are nocturnal, so have large eyes that see well in the dark and large ears that can move independently of each other.   Their eyes are closer to the front than in those of other mammals (for example, think of how a horse’s eyes are spaced on either side of the head) and they have snouts. 

They have an excellent sense of smell,  and nimble fingers.  Most prosimians are ‘old world’: lemurs are found only on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa;  tarsiers are found only in the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, the Celebes and the Philippines; and lorises live in areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.

The gorilla is the largest ape ©Getty Images

The gorilla is the largest ape ©Getty Images


The rest of the primates are anthropoids. This group is generally referred to as ‘the higher primates’ because of their larger, more complex brains. They all have flat faces and small ears. Anthropoids are divided into two groups: monkeys and apes.

Some general differences between apes and monkeys



Do not have a tail Most have a tail. Some are prehensile (able to grasp), but not old world monkeys
Arms longer than legs so they can swing through the trees. They can walk upright on two legs. Arms are same length or shorter than legs. Cannot swing from branch to branch, but run along the branches. Walk on all fours most of the time.
Life span is up to 60 years. Life span is up to 30 years.
Make and use tools for finding food Generally do not use tools, though capuchins may do so
Nostrils are round Nostrils are slanted
Nest in trees and on the ground Nest in trees
Larger brain, more intelligent than monkeys
Thumbs are similar to those of humans: opposable thumbs that can fold onto palm of hand Do not have opposable thumbs
More similar to humans than monkeys. Chimpanzees are the most similar.
Few species of apes, and none are new world Hundreds of different monkey species, both new world and old world
©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Read about monkeys.


Read about the apes.


Read the kidcyber primate pages:



See a video about primates