Primates Family Tree 
Primate Conservation

Primates: Classification and a quick note on word endings


Squirrel MonkeyThere are so many species of living things on Earth, zoologists have to classify and categorise not only to make sense of things but also to aid identification. Talk to a gardener from China about snap dragons and they most likely won't know what you're talking about. However, mention Antirrhinum majus and you're talking the same language!

The classification system used today is based on the system introduced by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus.

However, any system is not fixed and zoologists are constantly "tweaking" the system to reflect new knowledge. And they don't always agree! Which is not surprising considering the complexities of life on Earth, living and extinct. And it is also why you might see minor differences in classification when researching.

The generally accepted way of classifying all life is as follows:


Kingdom There are 5 kingdoms.
Animals, Plants, Fungi, Protista (single celled organisms that have a cell nucleus; includes slime molds and some algae), Monera (single celled organisms that do not have a cell nucleus. Includes various types of bacteria).
Phylum Each Kingdom is split further into Phyla.
For example, there are around 30 phyla in the animal kingdom, some of which are further sub divided into Sub-Phyla.
The Phylum Chordata is further split into 3 Sub-Phyla, one of which is the vertibrate animals (animals with backbones).
Class Each Phylum is further split into Classes.
For example the Vertibrates are divided into 7 classes which include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
Order Each Class is divided into Orders.
An example of an order is Primates, which is a sub division of the class Mammalia.
Orders may be further divided into sub orders and infraorders.
Family Each Order is divided into Families.
Very often we have super families and families. For example Hominoidea is the super family of apes and includes the family of Gibbons, Hylobatidae.
Genus This is a group of closely related species. For example there are several species of Colobus monkeys, all belonging the the genus Colobus.
Species A species is usually designated by the genus (capitalised) followed by the species name.
For example, the black colobus monkey is designated Colobus satanas.


Three examples:

You can use the Primates Tree we have prepared to trace these particular classifications.

Classification HumanHuman Red Uakari Red Uakari Chimpanzee Common Chimpanzee
Kingdom Animalia Animalia Animalia
Phylum Chordata Chordata Chordata
Sub-Phylum Vertibrata Vertibrata Vertibrata
Class Mammalia Mammalia Mammalia
Order Primates Primates Primates
Sub Order Anthropoidea Anthropoidea Anthropoidea
Infra Order Catarrhini Platyrrhini Catarrhini
Super Family Hominoidea Ceboidea Hominoidea
Family Hominidae Cebidae Pongidae*
Genus Homo Cacajao Pan
Species Homo sapien Cacajao rubicundus Pan troglodytes

*Recently there have been moves to include the great apes within the family Hominidae. In this scheme Homininae is a subfamily of Hominidae, and includes Homo sapiens and some extinct relatives, as well as the gorillas and the chimpanzees (not orangutans).

To distinguish between humans, chimps and gorillas, another term Hominini, which refers to a Tribe (this occupies the space between family and genus), is used to describe all the human species that have ever lived but which doesn't include chimps and gorillas. 

If this all sounds like complicated madness, the reason is that recent DNA sequencing has shown that the ancestors of chimps, gorillas and humans split from the orang-utan line first. Next came the chimp/human and gorilla split. Finally chimp and human ancestors split to produce the 3 species alive today.

Diagrammatically, it looks something like this, with time going from past to present, with the oldest common ancester located at the top of the diagram.

Great Apes split

If you look at the primate family tree, you will notice we have used the old classification, simply becasue it is the most commonly used one at present.

However, if you look closely you will see that it doesn't really represent the evolutionary relationship between the great apes and humans as shown above.

Further reading on classification:

Palomar College has prepared a very readable classification of living things. Flashcards and crossword puzzles also included.
Animal Diversity Web. Another very good site. Includes pictures, sounds, information and classification. Excellent fact sheets and articles on individual primates as well as a classification table.
Carl Linnaeus Biography
The Franklin Institute Readable explanations and activity ideas.
PlantExplorers for information on plant classification.
Enchanted Learning for a simple treatment for younger children
Rediscovering Biology for a detailed treatment suitable for A level onwards.


Word Endings:

When zoologists assign names to families there is a set of rules they follow. The following applies to animal classification.

Superfamily Name ends in "-oidea"
Family name Name ends in "-idae"
Subfamily Name ends in "-inae"
Tribe Name ends in "-ini"
Subtribe Name ends in "-ina"

Note the suffix -oid is from the Greek and means resembling. The prefix homo means man, therefore the word hominoid means man like.

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