New World Monkeys


New World monkeys are the nonhuman primates of South and Central America. Because almost all of their evolutionary history took place on the island continent of South America without competition from other primates, and most likely in a strictly arboreal setting, the character of their adaptation is unique. Fossils and molecules indicate the major lineages are long enduring, having attained diverse, stable ecological conditions quite early. Today, platyrrhine (wide‐nosed) monkeys comprise the most diversified taxonomic group among anthropoids. More primitive anatomically than Old World monkeys or apes, some forms resemble early fossil anthropoids from Egypt and serve well as models for reconstructing their behaviour. Others are more like the specialised apes in their locomotor adaptations, or the modified, folivorous leaf monkeys, whereas some evoke the big‐brained, extractive foraging strategies of African apes. Highly varied in their outward appearance as well, the range of social behaviours and mating strategies exhibited by platyrrhines is without equal among the primates.

Key Concepts:

  • New World monkeys occupy a wide variety of arboreal niches in the seasonally flooded forests of the Amazon and Orinoco river systems in continental South America, as well as more peripheral and less tropical biomes in southern South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

  • Living New World monkeys are the smallest anthropoid primates, ranging across a span from less than 1 kg to approximately 10 kg.

  • As an isolated, highly diversified radiation they are important models for studying parallel evolution in anatomy and behaviour while also providing living analogies for reconstructing the adaptations of extinct primates.

  • The adaptive radiation of platyrrhines unfolded along cladistic lines, with each of the four main lineages occupying a distinct ecological zone characterised by a combination of body size, feeding preference and locomotor habit.

  • The four main branches of the platyrrhine radiation, and some of the living genera, are older than any of the lineages or genera of Old World monkeys or apes.

  • Where platyrrhines originally came from, directly from Africa or via North America, remains a difficult question as both hypotheses have their own pros and cons.

  • The modern radiation of New World monkeys is an Amazonian phenomenon that was taking root 11–13 million years ago, as shown by fossils from a rich site in Colombia, but older, more primitive forms are found in Patagonia.

  • Because of their dependence on multi‐level tropical forest ecosystems, New World monkey species are under acute threat of extinction as humans occupy and consume more and more forested areas and resources.

Keywords: primates; tropics; South America; platyrrhines; anthropoids; mammals; evolution

Figure 1.

Portraits of the pygmy marmoset (Cebuella), top, and the squirrel monkey (Saimiri), two New World monkeys belonging to the frugivorous–insectivorous cebid clade. Original artwork by Timothy D Smith.

Figure 2.

Portrait of one of the prehensile‐tailed New World monkeys, the woolly monkey (Lagothrix). Grasping tails evolved twice among platyrrhines, once among early ateids, as represented here, and once in a cebid, the capuchin monkey (Cebus). The capuchin tail is often called semiprehensile as it lacks several features shared by the atelids, including great length, a finger‐like pad of sensitive friction skin on the underside near the tail's end, and an unusual expansion of the area of the brain relating to it motor control. From Elliot . © American Museum of Natural History.

Figure 3.

An ecophylogenetic model of the New World monkey adaptive radiation. The four major taxonomic clades occupy semi‐discrete adaptive zones. Each is distinguished primarily by a discrete combination of dietary and locomotor adaptations, as well as body mass, that evolved from a more primitive, generalised ancestor. Reused from Rosenberger .

Figure 4.

An example of how the diverse adaptations of platyrrhine contributes to understanding parallel evolution and reconstructing the behaviour of fossils. Cheek teeth (1st–3rd molars) of the semifolivorous howler monkey (bottom rows, uppers above and lowers below), Alouatta, shows a remarkable resemblance to a fossil from the Fayum, Egypt and Afradapis that is related to early members of the strepsirhine (lemurs and lorises) group. Afradapis courtesy of Erik Seiffert. Reproduced from Rosenberger et al..

Figure 5.

Five views of a fossil platyrrhine cranium, Antillothrix, found in an underwater cave in the Dominican Republic. The palaeontology of such caves is currently the major source of fossil mammals and other vertebrates from the Dominican Republic. © Alfred Rosenberger.



Cartelle C and Hartwig WC (1996) A new extinct primate among the Pleistocene megafauna of Bahia, Brazil. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 93(13): 6405–6409.

Cooke SB, Rosenberger AL and Turvey S (2011) An extinct monkey from Haiti and the origins of the Greater Antillean primates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108(7): 2699–2704.

Delson E and Rosenberger AL (1984) Are there any anthropoid primate ‘living fossils’? In: Eldredge N and Stanley S (eds) Casebook on Living Fossils, pp. 50–61. New York: Fischer Publishers.

Digby LJ, Ferrari SF and Saltzman W (2011) Callitrichines: the role of competition in cooperatively breeding species. In: Campbell CJ, Fuentes A, MacKinnon KC, Bearder SK and Stumpf RM (eds) Primates in Perspective, 2nd edn, pp. 91–107. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elliot DG (1913) A Review of the Primates. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

Fleagle JG (1999) Primate Adaptation and Evolution. San Diego: Academic Press.

Halenar LB (2011) Reconstructing the locomotor repertoire of Protopithecus brasiliensis I: Body size. Anatomical Record 294: 2048–2063.

Hartwig WC and Cartelle C (1996) A complete skeleton of the giant South American primate Protopithecus. Nature 381(6580): 307–310.

Hartwig WC, Rosenberger AL, Norconk MA and Young Owl M (2011) Relative brain size, gut size, and evolution in New World monkeys. Anatomical Record 294: 2207–2221.

Maiolino S, Boyer DM and Rosenberger AL (2011) Morphological correlates of the grooming claw in distal phalanges of platyrrhines and other primates: a preliminary study. Anatomical Record 294: 1975–1990.

Organ JM, Muchlinski MN and Deane AS (2011) Mechanoreceptivity of prehensile tail skin varies between Ateline and Cebine primates. Anatomical Record 294: 2064–2072.

Perez SI, Klaczko J and dos Reis SF (2012) Species tree estimation for a deep phylogenetic divergence in the New World monkeys (Primates: Platyrrhini). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 65(2): 621–630.

Poux C, Chevret P, Huchon D, de Jong WW and Douzery EJP (2006) Arrival and diversification of caviomorph and platyrrhine primates in South America. Systematic Zoology 55: 228–244.

Rosenberger AL (1983) Tale of tails: parallelism and prehensility. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 60(1): 103–107.

Rosenberger AL (1992) Evolution of feeding niches in New World monkeys. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 88: 545–562.

Rosenberger AL (2002) Platyrrhine paleontology and systematics: the paradigm shifts. In: Hartwig WC (ed.) The Primate Fossil Record, pp. 151–160. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenberger AL (2011) Evolutionary morphology, platyrrhine evolution and systematics. Anatomical Record 294: 1955–1974.

Rosenberger AL (2012) New World monkey nightmares: science, art, use and abuse(?) in platyrrhine taxonomic nomenclature. American Journal of Primatology 74: 692–695.

Rosenberger AL, Cooke SB, Rímoli R, Ni X and Cardoso L (2011a) First skull of Antillothrix bernensis, an extinct relict monkey from the Dominican Republic. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 67–74.

Rosenberger AL, Halenar LB and Cooke SB (2011b) The making of platyrrhine semi‐folivores: models for the evolution of folivory in primates. Anatomical Record 294: 2112–2130.

Rosenberger AL and Tejedor MF (in press) The misbegotten: long lineages, long branches and the interrelationships of Aotus, Callicebus and the saki–uakaris. In: Barnett AL, Veiga S, Ferrari S and Norconk M (eds) Evolutionary Biology and Conservation of Titis, Sakis and Uakaris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenberger AL, Tejedor MF, Cooke SB, Halenar L and Pekkar S (2009) Platyrrhine ecophylogenetics, past and present. In: Garber P, Estrada A, Bicca‐Marques JC, Heymann EW and Strier K (eds) South American Primates: Comparative Perspectives In The Study Of Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, pp. 69–113. New York: Springer.

Schneider H and Rosenberger AL (1996) Molecules, morphology and platyrrhine systematics. In: Norconk MA, Rosenberger AL and Garber PA (eds) Adaptive Radiations of Neotropical Primates, pp. 3–19. New York: Plenum Press.

Seiffert ER, Simons EL, Fleagle JG and Godinot M (2010) Paleogene anthropoids. In: Werdelin L and Sanders WJ (eds) Cenozoic Mammals of Africa, pp. 369–391. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith T, Rose KD and Gingerich PD (2006) Rapid Asia–Europe–North America geographic dispersal of earliest Eocene primate Teilhardina during the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 103(30): 11223–11227.

Strier K (2011) Conservation. In: Campbell CJ, Fuentes AF, MacKinnon KC et al. (eds) Primates in Perspective, 2nd edn, pp. 664–675. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wildman DE, Jameson NM, Opazo JC and Yi SV (2009) A fully resolved genus level phylogeny of neotropical primates (Platyrrhini). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 53: 694–702.

Youlatos D and Meldrum J (2011) Locomotor diversification in New World monkeys: running, climbing, or clawing along evolutionary branches. Anatomical Record 294: 1001–2012.

Further Reading

Fleagle JG and Tejedor MF (2002) Early platyrrhines of southern South America. In: Hartwig WC (ed.) The Primate Fossil Record, pp. 161–174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ford SM (1994) Evolution of sexual dimorphism in body weight in platyrrhines. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 34: 221–244.

Garber PA, Estrada A, Bicca‐Marques JC, Heymann EW and Strier KB (2009) South American Primates: Comparative Perspectives in the Study of Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation. New York: Springer Verlag.

Hartwig WC (1996) Perinatal life history traits in New World monkeys. American Journal of Primatology 41: 99–130.

Hartwig WC and Meldrum DJ (2002) Miocene platyrrhines of the northern Neotropics. In: Hartwig WC (ed.) The Primate Fossil Record, pp. 175–188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hershkovitz P (1977) Living New World Monkeys, Volume 1: (Platyrrhini) With an Introduction to Primates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kinzey WG (1997) New World Monkeys: Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Norconk MA, Rosenberger AL and Garber PA (eds) (1996) Adaptive Radiations of Neotropical Primates. New York: Plenum Press.

The Late Early Miocene Killikaike blakei, a cebine from Patagonia known from a well preserved face and dentition, was inadvertently not listed in Table 2. 

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Rosenberger, Alfred L, and Hartwig, Walter Carl(Mar 2013) New World Monkeys. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001562.pub3]