Can you tell the difference between apes and monkeys? For much of history, there was no ape vs monkey debate, and the terms were used interchangeably, even though apes and monkeys are actually very different animals.
In some cases, monkeys and apes can live side by side, or look similar, but after a little research, it’s obvious that there are a number of significant differences between the two groups. So, how can you tell which animals are monkeys, and which are apes… and what exactly are the differences between monkeys and apes? Let’s start with a little evolutionary biology.
Ape vs New World monkey vs Old World monkey
Before looking at the differences between apes and monkeys, it’s important to know that apes and monkeys are both types of primates. A primate is an animal belonging to the biological order ‘Primates’, a group that contains all species of lemurs, monkeys, and apes worldwide.
The term ‘monkey’ is generally accepted to refer to two groups of primates – New World monkeys and Old World monkeys. These two groups themselves have many divergences, with significant differences between the two groups include opposable thumbs, sitting pads, nose and septum shape, and prehensile tails. (Read more about Old World African monkeys.)
Apes, Old World monkeys, and New World monkeys all diverged from each other many millions of years ago, and are all part of a sub-family (suborder) of primates known as Anthropoids. Anthropoids vary considerably in size, geographical range, and behavior, but they are similar in that they all have flat faces, small ears, and relatively large, complex brains.
This taxonomy of primates should help you understand where apes (green), Old World monkeys (yellow), and New World monkeys (orange) – sit in the overall primate family. At the top of the chart in white are primate species that are neither apes nor monkeys, namely galagos, lorises, and lemurs:
Differences between apes and monkeys
Whilst all monkeys and apes are primates (and part of the same Primate suborder), there are lots of differences between them. Let’s explore these differences between apes and monkeys now:
Apes have no tail
The easiest way to distinguish apes from monkeys is by the presence or absence of a tail. With only a couple of exceptions, all 260 species of monkeys have tails, but no apes have tails.
Chimpanzee (left) is an ape with no tail vs a spider monkey with a long tail.
Body size and shape
Monkeys diverged from the human evolutionary line long before apes, meaning apes have a body shape and skeleton much closer to humans than monkeys do. (To this point, apes have an appendix whilst monkeys do not.)
Apes are usually larger and heavier than monkeys and have broad chests, with shoulder joints that allow them to swing through trees.
Monkeys are more like other mammals in body shape than apes, and are generally smaller with narrow chests. Their skeletal structure is similar to a mid-sized mammal like a cat or dog.
Difference in movement
Apes tend to have a much more upright body position than monkeys, and are able to walk comfortably on their two hind legs.
When moving through trees apes use their arms to swing from branch to branch (a movement known as brachiating) and have evolved shoulder joints to help them do this. Whilst monkeys can sometimes brachiate they are usually seen running on tree branches rather than swinging.
An orangutang brachiating vs a monkey walking on a branch
This one may not be so easy to tell from simply looking at a primate in the wild, but apes have a larger brain to body size ratio than monkeys, making them more intelligent. In fact, apes are probably the most intelligent animals around.
To a higher level than monkeys, apes are able to think through and solve problems in their environments. One obvious example of that is the chimpanzee – the closest ape to humans genetically – who create and use simple tools to help them access food.
Whilst monkeys are able to use sound and body language to communicate well with each other, apes have been observed to possess far more advanced cognitive and language skills.
Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans don’t have the required physiological adaptations to produce speech, but display extensive language capability. Scientists have taught these species to use sign language, body movements, and even technology to communicate with humans effectively.
This last difference between monkeys and apes might come in useful if you’re in the Americas, where if you see a primate in the wild it definitely won’t be an ape! Apes are found only in Africa and Asia, whilst monkeys live in Central and South America as well as Europe, Africa, and Asia. There are no apes or monkeys (or any primates at all) in Australasia.
So what are ‘great apes’?
The term ‘great ape’ refers to a sub-category of apes known as Hominidae, made up of orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, and us – humans (basically all apes except the gibbon family, members of which are known as lesser apes).
Physically great apes have some common features, such as an almost naked face, no cheek pouches, and opposable thumbs that are shorter than their other fingers.
However, it’s more for their behaviour that great apes are differentiated from other apes – specifically their ability to use tools and language, and their complex social groups and lives.
There are academics who believe that chimpanzees actually develop their own cultures – unique tendencies and behaviors that are learned or imitated within certain chimpanzee groups that are in contrast to other groups. For these reasons, there is a consensus that great apes are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
There are a few exceptions to these general monkey vs ape rules; there are some monkeys – such as Barbary macaques – that have no tails, and there are a couple of monkey species as large as apes (mandrills and baboons).
Failing all else, there are 260 species of monkey and only six ape species. So if you’re in any doubt and want to know if it’s a monkey or an ape, if the primate you’re looking at is not one of the below ape species it’s a monkey or some other type of primate:
And that’s the lot for this round-up of ape vs monkey. We hope you’re now able to answer the questions ‘What is the difference between an ape and a monkey?’
What do you think – any difference between apes and monkeys that surprised you? Or any differences we should add to this post? Please join in and let us know in the comments section below!