A primate, which includes
the species Homo sapiens (us), is classified as a mammal (Class Mammalia).
This means that they have similar shared biological and behavioral
characteristics. For example, mammals control their body temperature
internally (thermoregulation), unlike a snake that requires contact
with sunlight, warm surfaces, or other external means to increase
All mammals thermoregulate their bodies to a specific range of temperatures.
Using a complex system of heat retention and heat loss, and body coatings such
as hair, skin and glands, mammals can live in a wide variety of climates. Mammals
are also characterized by efficient breathing systems, a separate chest and
abdominal cavity, a four-chambered heart, and a complex nervous system.
Complex nutrition, locomotion and posture, reproductive strategies and behavioral
flexibility are all mammalian traits. Mammals require a lot of food that is
completely processed during digestion. A hard palate, a bony structure located
in the throat, allows the animal to breath and chew at the same time. The skeletal
anatomy of mammals is light to facilitate quick movement. Extensive bone growth
occurs during infancy and childhood in the long parts of bones. Reproductive
systems are designed for longer periods of gestation during which the mother’s
body provides nourishment for the fetus. Infants are born with complex neurological,
skeletal, muscular and circulatory systems that enable them to move, grow,
and learn at a young age. The behavioral repertoire of mammals is much more
sophisticated than other animal species, thus requiring a longer period of
learning for adult behavior.
The classification of mammals can be reduced further to include a smaller group
of species that share specific characteristics. This level of taxonomic classification
is called an Order. Prosimians, monkeys, apes, and humans belong to the Order
Primates. Primate species inhabit nearly all ecological niches through biological
and behavioral adaptations. Humans, in particular, have an extremely broad
geographical range made possible by complex behavior. While most primates are
adapted for life in an arboreal environment, only humans are fully adapted
for terrestrial, bipedal (walking on two feet) locomotion.
So what are the specific characteristics of primates? Actually, primates have
no strong distinguishing attributes. As a group, their diets vary greatly;
they're omnivorous. Their tooth structure is very generalized and their hands
are adapted for general purposes. The main primate characteristics are:
- The ability to
manipulate and hold an object with one hand.
- Opposable thumbs
and big toes. The obvious exception to this is humans, who only
have opposable thumbs. This is because our main source of locomotion
is bipedal, thus we use our feet to walk and not for grasping objects.
- A tendency towards
- Fewer teeth than
most mammals, which means primates have a flatter face.
- Reduced olfactory
sense (smell) but increased visual sensitivity. Primates have good
color vision and visual acuity.
- Most primates are
diurnal or active during the day.
- Almost all primates
have one or more fingernails (as opposed to claws).
- Primates are very
intelligent, capable of very sophisticated social behavior.