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.



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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.

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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. 

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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]