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What is the Difference Between Monkeys and Apes?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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While both belong to the Primate family, monkeys and apes are distinctly different from one another. Millions of years ago, familial ancestors to both groups were identical, but evolution led to divisions within the family. They are both physically and evolutionarily separate, with clear distinctions apparent between them.

Primates are divided into two groups, prosimians and anthropoids. The prosimian group includes lemurs and tarsiers, and is considered the more primitive group. Anthropoids are further divided into three groups: monkeys, apes, and hominids, including humans.

The monkey subgroup contains over 200 different species of monkey, including baboons, tamarins, macaques, and capuchins. It is also divided into geographical groups, with Old World monkeys inhabiting Africa and Asia, and New World monkeys living throughout Central and South America. Apes are also divided, but along terms of size. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans are called “greater apes” because of their large body size, while gibbons and siamangs are often referred to as “lesser apes.”

While both monkeys and apes share certain physical features, such as forward-facing eyes and flexible limbs, there are several physical differences between the two groups. No ape species possesses a tail, while monkeys do. Monkeys are much more used to life in trees than apes, and use their tail as a fifth limb. Additionally, monkeys are not capable of using their arms to swing between branches, as apes can. Having a tail makes monkeys ideally suited for life in the treetops, while apes seem to have evolved to live comfortably on the ground or in trees.

With the exception of the gibbon, apes are considerably larger than monkeys. They have broad backs and arms that are longer than their legs. Most monkeys feature chests that a longer than they are broad, and have an arm-length equal to or shorter than their legs.

The greatest differences between these primates are believed to lie in intelligence levels. Monkeys are far more similar to the primitive prosimians in brain capacity and capabilities. Apes are closer to their human counterparts, able to learn forms of sign language, use tools, and display problem solving skills. It is believed that apes, particularly chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, are much more similar to humans than they are to monkeys. Some ape species carry a 98% genetic match with humans, while monkeys are considerably less similar.

Monkeys and apes are clearly different, despite common terminology often using the words as interchangeable. One thing both share in common, however, is a high level of endangerment and extinction threats. These animals have survived for millions of years and through considerable threats to their environments. People who would like to help protect them should contact a reputable conservation agency and ask about their efforts to prevent harm from being done to our closest animal cousins.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for All Things Nature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon255719 — On Mar 19, 2012

There are some species of monkey that do not have tails.

By anon253074 — On Mar 08, 2012

Your statement that monkeys are more used to living in trees than apes is incorrect. Two species of apes, the Gibbons and the Orangutan, are highly arboreal. In fact, no non-flying animal in the world is faster or more agile in the trees than the Gibbons apes, swinging 50 feet through the air branch to branch, at up to 35 miles an hour. They forage in the trees for bark, leaves, fruits, seeds, bugs, birds, and bird eggs. They sleep sitting up on branches with their knees up and their heads in their laps. That sounds pretty damn comfortable with life in the trees, to me.

By anon118222 — On Oct 13, 2010

It should be noted that a crucial primate grouping change has occurred: the order primates is now divided into Stepsirhini and Haplorhini suborders; Stepsirhini is now Infraorder Lemuriformes, with the Superfamilies Lemuriformes (Lemur) and Loriformes (Loris). Tarsiers are now under the Infraorder Tarsilformes, under the Haplorhini Suborder.

This article is a bit older, I am guessing?

By Georgesplane — On Jul 11, 2010

@ Glasshouse- The study of genetics has unlocked many mysteries about the differences between humans, great apes, old world monkeys and new world monkeys. Genetics, in combination with other sciences, has allowed scientists to map not only the genome of humans and other primates, but the geographical evolutionary migration of different species as well.

Studying both living and extinct populations has led to discoveries of the origins of humans. DNA research has proven that the mitochondrial Eve and Y chromosomal Adam originated in Africa, somewhere near what is now the South Western Coast of Namibia.

By Glasshouse — On Jul 11, 2010

Monkeys and apes were one in the same until they went their separate evolutionary ways some 25 to 40 million years ago. Old world monkeys like the ones in Africa shared a common ancestor with apes and humans about 25 million years ago. The evolutionary split from new world monkeys like the ones found in South America happened around 40 million years ago.

Scientists made these discoveries during the mapping of the human genome. Scientists compared the human genome to those of the different non-human apes, South American monkey, and African monkeys, enabling them to see the differences and similarities between humans, apes, and monkeys.

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 11, 2010

Some of the differences in monkeys and apes are: apes do not have tails and monkeys do, apes have rounded nasal openings and monkeys have slanted nasal openings, monkeys have web feet and apes do not, and monkeys are generally smaller.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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