Are Apes Monkeys?

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Michael Fassbender

Monkeys and apes are both primates, which means they’re both part of the human family tree. As distinguished relatives, we should probably be able to tell them apart. But when you look at a gibbon or a marmoset, how do you know which is a monkey and which is an ape? The quickest way to tell the difference between a monkey and an ape is by the presence or absence of a tail. Almost all monkeys have tails; apes do not. Their bodies are different in other ways too: monkeys are generally smaller and narrow-chested, while apes are larger and have broad chests and shoulder joints that allow them to swing through trees (while some monkeys also have this ability, most of them are built for running across branches rather than swinging). Although you can’t recognize this difference on sight, apes have an appendix and monkeys do not. Apes are generally more intelligent than monkeys, and most species of apes exhibit some use of tools. While both monkeys and apes can use sounds and gestures to communicate, apes have demonstrated higher ability with language, and some individual apes have been trained to learn human sign languages. However, perhaps the best way to remember, like with so many things, is rote memorization. There are only a handful of ape species, while there are hundreds of species of monkeys. If the primate you’re trying to place is not a human, gibbon, chimpanzee, bonobo, orangutan, or gorilla (or a lemur, loris, or tarsier), then it’s a monkey.

Understanding the Difference

Monkeys and apes are both primates, but they have distinct characteristics that set them apart. Understanding these differences can help in correctly identifying whether a primate is a monkey or an ape.

Monkeys are generally smaller, have tails, and are built for running across branches. On the other hand, apes are larger, tailless, and have broad chests and shoulder joints that allow them to swing through trees. Additionally, apes have an appendix, are more intelligent, and exhibit a higher ability with language and tool usage compared to monkeys.

Scientific Classification

Scientifically, apes are classified as a type of monkey. This is because of the nested hierarchical system in biological taxonomy, where all apes are monkeys, but not all monkeys are apes. This system, established by Linnaeus in the 1750s, organizes species into clades based on shared characteristics and common ancestry. It is a fundamental principle in biological taxonomy and helps in understanding the evolutionary relationships between different species.

Apes are considered monkeys based on the concept of monophyly, where a group of species shares a common ancestor. This scientific argument supports the classification of apes as monkeys within the nested hierarchical system.

Common Terminology

While ‘monkey’ is not a scientific term, it is commonly used to refer to a broad range of primates, including apes. The use of the term ‘monkey’ to describe apes is evident in both literature and popular culture, indicating its widespread acceptance as a generic term for various primate species.

It is also beneficial for common terms for biological groups to align with scientific terminology, as it facilitates communication between scientists and non-specialist audiences. Therefore, even though ‘monkey’ may not directly correspond to the scientific term Simiiformes, its common usage and the need for effective communication support its association with a broader range of primates, including apes.

FAQs

Are all apes considered monkeys?

Yes, based on the nested hierarchical system in biological taxonomy, all apes are considered monkeys. However, it’s important to note that while apes are monkeys, not all monkeys are apes.

Why is the distinction between monkeys and apes significant?

The distinction is significant as it helps in understanding the evolutionary relationships and characteristics of different primate species. It also aids in scientific communication and classification within the field of biology.

Can the terms ‘monkey’ and ‘ape’ be used interchangeably?

While ‘monkey’ is commonly used as a generic term for various primates, including apes, it is advisable to use the more specific term ‘ape’ when referring to Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Gibbons, Orang-utans, and Humans for clarity and accuracy.

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