The order Primates is made up of mammals from the human, ape, monkey, lemur, tarsier and loris families. The primate families differ in many ways but share several characteristics. For example, the size of a primate’s brain in relation to body weight is larger than that of other terrestrial mammal. Primates are also the only mammals to have flat nails, all other mammals have claws and hooves. And even when a primate has specialised to have claws, their big toenail is always flat!
There are over 500 species of primate, making it the third most diverse mammalian order. Each species differs from the next in exciting and interesting ways, and some species are better studied and more well-known than others. So, we thought we’d take this opportunity to tell you about some of the lesser-known primates which Operation Wallacea have the privilege of interacting with across the globe.
When we think of lemurs, images of ring-tailed lemurs usually spring to mind thanks to films such as Madagascar. But did you know there are over 100 species within the lemur superfamily? Lemurs typically have large eyes, long hind limbs, monkey-like bodies and fox-like faces. They like to live in groups and spend most of their time in trees eating their fill of fruits and leaves.
One genus of lemurs which are indigenous to the forests of Madagascar are the Sifakas. These lemurs received their name because of their unique vocalisation which sounds like shif-auk. Sifakas come in several gorgeous colours, their limbs and bodies can be different colours while their heads are often a mixture of gold, black, grey, or white-coloured fur.
Sifaka Fun Fact: they don’t move about in the same way as other members of their family. They stand upright which allows them to leap around 12 metres(!) and move quickly across the ground by jumping sideways.
Operation Wallacea work with a very cute, critically endangered species called the Coquerel’s sifaka. These lemurs live to 30 years old and spend their time in small social groups of 3-10 individuals which are run by the females. Males that step out of line (e.g., try to eat before the females) are likely to get a smack!
Photos provided by Harry Forte & Wiebke Berg
There are 23 species of macaques which are relatively small, Old World monkeys. These monkeys have hairless faces and while most have long limbs and tails, some species lack a tail completely. Macaques are either herbivorous or omnivorous and have been recorded eating over 120 different plant species as well as mice, birds and insects.
Macaque Fun Fact: macaques are found in more climates and habitats than any other primate (excluding humans).
Some macaques are better known than others. For example, the Rhesus macaque is rather famous because it was the first living animal to go to space and return safely! Indonesia hosts 11 of the Macaque species, one of which is the crested black macaques which are only found on two Indonesian islands which are 345 miles apart. Their fur and skin are jet black but when females are ready to mate their buttock become bright red!
Photos provided by Amy Dixon & Dr Nancy Priston
There are around 13 species of tarsiers which are small (about 9-16cm long), jumping primates with a tail which can be over twice their body length. These species are only found on Southeast Asian islands. Tarsiers have huge, kind of funny looking eyes and large ears which are always moving about. Their tails are scaly, like a rat’s, and their fur is thick and can be coloured anywhere between grey and dark brown. Their fingers and toes are flat at the end to help them climb and grab branches when jumping between trees.
Tarsier Fun Fact: they are the only totally carnivorous primates! Their diet is made up of lizards, snakes and insects.
When in Indonesia, Operation Wallacea can see the Western tarsier which are particularly funky looking. Their eyes are so big that their head is wider than it is long, they have the longest feet of all the tarsiers and their tails also have a little tuft of hair at the end.
Photos provided by Rowena Hamer & Amy Dixon
Howler monkeys are the largest of the New World monkeys and are found in Central and South America. These monkeys have a long, prehensile tail which they use to remain in the trees almost all of the time. They have beards and their fur is thick, coloured red, black or brown. As the name suggests, these monkeys make very loud vocalisations, in fact they are the loudest of all the monkeys! To help them make such loud noises, the males have special shell-shaped vocal chambers and their howls can be heard up to 3 miles away.
Howler Fun Fact: because some of the screeches produced by howler monkeys are so crazy, they were used to create the sound of a dinosaur in Jurassic Park!
Black howler monkeys are the largest monkeys found in the Latin American rainforests and those visiting the OpWall jungle sites in Mexico can see (and hear!) them regularly. Despite the name, these monkeys are actually blonde at birth and only the males’ fur turns black as they mature, the females remain blonde their whole lives!
Photos provided by Alex Tozer & Chelsea McIntyre
The endangered proboscis monkeys are so-called because of the huge, floppy noses sported by the males. It is believed they help the males produce louder calls to attract mates and scare off rivals. If you look passed the nose (which is pretty tricky!) these monkeys have interesting colourings. Their fur is light brown on the body, red over the shoulders and head, and grey on the limbs and tail.
Proboscis Fun Fact: these monkeys are the best primate swimmers. They have evolved webbed feet to help them out swim crocodiles and you can often see them leaping from trees and executing perfect belly flops!
These fascinating creatures are only found on the island of Borneo, sticking close to the rivers, mangroves, and swamps (hence the swimming capabilities!). They’ll only venture inland to find food – mainly leaves, seeds and unripe fruit.
Photos provided by Jack Hague
Even though we humans are a part of the primate order, thanks to our logging, mining, farming, building, hunting, and poaching (along with the spread of human diseases) by 2000 about three-quarters of all primate species were declining. And over 60% were considered threatened or endangered. Most of the species mentioned are at least classified as vulnerable, with far too many of them now thought to be critically endangered. Work is being done to try and save as many of these curious primates as possible but for many it sadly won’t be enough.