Monsoon Diversions: A Primate Primer
As the heat and monsoon rains of the desert southwest force us indoors, I thought it might be a good time to dust off that old black and white Composition notebook (you know the one) and reminisce about your early school days. I’d like you to revisit Biology class, when you were first introduced to some of the longest lists in the world, those of the animal, vegetable, and mineral variety. To keep it manageable, let’s just focus on the animals and one Order in particular, the Primates.
A master list maker classifies…everything on the planet
Classifying animals has never been an easy task. Carl Linnaeus didn’t attempt his first comprehensive list of animals until the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758), his encyclopedic catalog of everything on the planet. To make the list more manageable, Linnaeus and the scientists who came after him divided the Primates into two suborders based on their morphology (size, shape, color, and structure): The Prosimians and the Anthropoids/aka Simians. Think of the Prosimians as pre-Simians (before Apes) on the evolutionary time scale.
Modern DNA technology has shaken things up since then, and distinguishing one species from another remains an ongoing process. In the 21st century, because we can study an organism’s DNA or genome, classification is based on evolutionary history, or phylogeny. In biology, the term phylogenesis means how a species develops and diversifies and how species are related by common ancestors.
While we may quibble with the content of Linnaeus’ lists, we can be grateful for his idea about naming things. He formalized a standard binomial nomenclature, the two-name system of identifying organisms. The first name, the generic part, identifies the genus, and the second name, the specific part, identifies the species. Unless you’re a biologist, you don’t need to memorize these names; it’s just comforting to know that a standardized system for naming exists.
It’s all down to noses
Even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist, there are some simple ways you can classify Primates. A good place to start is to identify the continents where these animals live in the wild. You’ll find that Apes live in Africa and Asia, Prosimians in Africa and Asia, and Monkeys in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Exception: A single species of Monkey, the Barbary Macaque, lives in Gibraltar, so technically, Europe.
Linnaeus differentiated the two Primate suborders based on the structure of their noses. It’s a good bet the noses aren’t the FIRST things you’ve noticed when seeing a primate, but they will be from now on.
Create your own handy reference for the next time you visit the zoo. On a sheet of paper (or mentally), draw a large circle, and then draw a straight line down from the top to the bottom dividing the circle in half. Each Primate suborder gets half a circle.
Here’s a quick glossary. To describe all these noses in scientific terms, Linnaeus turned to the Greeks.
Strepsis, a turning around (like a squiggly comma)
Haplo, onefold, single, simple
Platu (Platy), flat or broad (like a plate)
Kata (Cata), down
These prefixes are all attached to the infix Rhin (Rhine), meaning nose.
Now that you’re in the know, label one side of the circle Strepsirhines to represent the primitive Prosimians. These species have a wet or moist rhinarium (tip of nose) just like your dog or cat, are heavily reliant on their sense of smell, and are primarily nocturnal. They live in Africa and Asia and include:
- Lemurs, who live only on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa and nowhere else in the world
- Lorises, who live in Asia
- Loris-related animals, Galagos (Bushbabies) and Pottos, who live in Africa
Label the other side of the circle Haplorhines to represent the Anthropoids/aka Simians. These species have a dry or simple nose (lack of a rhinarium), rely heavily on vision, and are primarily diurnal. They live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and include:
- Tarsiers, quirky creatures who live only in Asia and share some characteristics with both suborders. Because they are a dry-nosed species, we list them here.
- Monkeys and Apes, a huge group of dry-nosed species which are further differentiated by the shape of their nose and orientation of their nostrils. On your drawing, divide the Haplorhine space into two parts and add two more labels.
- Platyrrhines, Monkeys who live only in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America). They have a dry or simple nose that is flat with outward-facing nostrils. For Platyrrhine Monkeys, visualize a Common Squirrel Monkey, a Capuchin, or a Marmoset.
- Catarrhines, represented by two superfamilies of Monkeys and Apes, who live in Africa and Asia except for that single exception, the Barbary Macaque living in Gibraltar. They have a dry or simple nose that is narrow with downward- or forward-facing nostrils. For Catarrhine Monkeys, visualize a Baboon, a Macaque, or a Mandrill. For Catarrhine Apes, visualize a Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Gibbon, or Orangutan.
If you examine a Primate’s nose and ask yourself these questions—1) does the species have a wet nose/rhinarium or a dry nose? and 2) if dry, are the nostrils flat and outward-facing or narrow and downward- or forward-facing? You are well on your way to classifying these animals.
Would you like to test those classification skills?? Well, there’s a perfect opportunity right in the heart of Tucson.
Visiting Primates at Reid Park Zoo!
If you’d like to spend a great morning outside in nature, I encourage you to stop by the Reid Park Zoo and visit the Primates who live there. Just inside the front plaza area, you can begin your tour by navigating counterclockwise through the areas representing Asia, South America, and Africa. Each Primate’s official conservation status, as determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ,is provided.
Lar Gibbon, Endangered, a Lesser Ape species from Southeast Asia
LOCATION: From the Chilean Flamingo lagoon, follow the main path between the carousel on the left and the Flamingo house on the right.
Meet 48-year old Billy, Reid Park Zoo’s geriatric Lar gibbon. Famous for his morning territorial song. Eats fruit (loves bananas), nutritional primate biscuits, plant material, occasionally insects or even a small bird. Known for his brachiating skills, swinging hand over hand from ropes in his habitat. Sometimes seen sleeping in a sitting position with his hands resting on his knees.
Common Squirrel Monkey, Least Concern (but exploited), a Monkey species from South America
LOCATION: Continue south a few steps, then turn right towards the South America Loop. Turn left and pass the Jaguar habitat.
Presenting 7-year-old females Glitter and Sparkles and 4-year-old male Parker, the zoo’s young troop of squirrel monkeys. Fast-moving, extremely playful. Eat insects, small vertebrates, fruit, nectar, and flowers. Enjoy foraging and figuring out food puzzles. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.
Ring-Tailed Lemur, Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa
LOCATION: Find your way back to the main path. Continue south up the hill and around the corner, bearing right at the Otter habitat, and make your way just a few feet past the Lion pavilion, the roofed structure with bench seating.
You’ll be delighted to see 9-year-old brothers Oak, Elm, and Linden who came to Tucson from Saint Catherine’s Island, a sanctuary for endangered and near-extinct animals and birds off the coast of Georgia. Most terrestrial of all Lemur species but enjoy climbing ropes and trees in their habitat. Often seen walking with tails erect or perched on platforms with tails hanging down. Eat fruit, nutritional primate biscuits, seeds, nectar, and leafy greens. When cold, cuddle together in one big Lemur ball. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.
Lion-Tailed Macaque, Endangered, a Monkey species from India in Asia
LOCATION: Go south towards the Pollinator Garden, then right to the Conservation Learning Center building.
You may need to look up to meet geriatric Macaques Hadji, a 29-year-old male, and Baniece “Beanie,” a 33-year-old female, both born at Reid Park Zoo. If not moving through the lower branches of their trees or on the ground foraging, may be perched up high above you. Eat fruit, seeds, leaves, nutritional primate biscuits, lizards, and insects. Enjoy popsicles or chewing on ice cubes during the hot Tucson summer.
One more species you can visit now – and soon we’ll also have the Siamang Gibbons in the Reid Park Zoo expansion….and you won’t want to miss them! But it’s time to mention the
Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Critically Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa
LOCATION: Go to the east side of the zoo, near the Alligator and African Wild Dog habitats.
Meet 8-year-old female Tallie and 16-year-old male Junior, a very athletic pair of primarily arboreal Lemurs. Enjoy climbing and hanging from the branches and ropes in their habitat. Tallie has orange eyes. Loud vocalizations when annoyed or startled, sometimes audible from the parking lot. Eat fruit, leaves, seeds, and nectar. Often seen doing what can only be described as Lemur yoga poses. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.
Hope for them and for us
The conservation status for most of these species is grim. About a third of all Lemurs are Critically Endangered—one step from Extinction—and the remaining two-thirds are Endangered and threatened with extinction. In mainland Africa, 53% of all Primate species are under threat.
At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife. Humans need to drastically change their relationship to other primates.
What’s in it for us? A 2020 article in the Smithsonian Magazine confirmed that people living in awe of nature—having that feeling of “being small in the face of nature”—felt more generous and kinder. Experiencing that same sense of awe is also thought to boost the immune system and sense of creativity.
By visiting the zoo, you’re helping these incredible primates and other species come back from the brink of extinction. A portion of your admission supports the scientists and conservation organizations working with these species in the wild.
Think about it
The Primates at Reid Park Zoo representing their cousins in the wild are the face of nature. With the planet’s human population now more than 7 1/2 billion, we vastly outnumber them. When you meet them, appreciate their wildness and experience that sense of awe. Think about your own use of our planet’s resources, how you shop, how you travel, and what you eat. Reflect on how your habits affect the lives of your fellow humans and your fellow Primates.
You can take action
Humans are a resourceful species, and there is a lot we can do to support our fellow Primates.
- Take a stand against the illegal pet trade
- Stop watching videos or films that feature wild animal “selfies” or “domesticated” exotic animals
- Practice the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Recycle, and Reuse
- Shop sustainably: Use reliable Eco Apps and look for Eco/Green symbols or labels to guide you, such as Sustainable Palm Oil, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Seafood Watch, and Forest Stewardship Council
- Reduce your carbon footprint by ridesharing, cycling, and walking when you can
- Reduce your carbon footprint by supporting local makers, crafts people, ranchers, and farmers
When we change our lives, we’ll change their lives.
On behalf of their counterparts in the wild, all the Primates at Reid Park Zoo—the spry senior, Billy, the energetic youngsters, Glitter, Sparkles, and Parker, the playful brothers, Oak, Elm, and Linden, the nimble seniors, Hadji and Beanie, and the spunky couple, Tallie and Junior—thank you!