2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mammals

Approximate worldwide distribution of monkeys.
Approximate worldwide distribution of monkeys.
Cynomolgus Monkey at Batu Caves, Malaysia
Cynomolgus Monkey at Batu Caves, Malaysia

A monkey is any member of two of the three groupings of simian primates. These three groupings are the New World monkeys, the Old World monkeys, and the apes. The New World monkeys are classified within the parvorder Platyrrhini, whereas the Old World monkeys (superfamily Cercopithecoidea) form part of the parvorder Catarrhini, which also includes the apes. Thus, scientifically speaking, monkeys do not form a "natural group", in that the Old World monkeys are actually more closely related to the apes than they are to the New World species. There are 264 known extant species of monkey. Because of their similarity to monkeys, apes such as chimpanzees and gibbons are often called monkeys in informal usage, though biologists don't consider them to be monkeys. Conversely, due to its size (up to 1 metre) the Mandrill is often thought to be an ape, but it is actually an Old World monkey. Also, a few monkey species have the word "ape" in their common name. Because they are not a single coherent group, monkeys do not have any particular traits that they all share and are not shared with the remaining group of simians, the apes.


Monkeys, Mori Sosen (1749-1821)
Monkeys, Mori Sosen (1749-1821)

Monkeys range in size from the Pygmy Marmoset, at 14-16 cm (5-6 inch) long (plus tail) and 120-140 g (4-5 oz) in weight, to the male Mandrill, almost 1 metre (3 ft) long and weighing 35 kg (75 lb). Some are arboreal (living in trees), some live on the savannah; diets differ among the various species but may contain any of the following: fruit, leaves, seeds, nuts, flowers, insects, spiders, eggs and small animals.

Some characteristics are shared among the groups; most New World monkeys have prehensile tails while Old World monkeys do not; some have trichromatic colour vision like that of humans, others are dichromats or monochromats. Although both the New and Old World monkeys, like the apes, have forward facing eyes, the faces of Old World and New World monkeys look very different though again, each group shares some features such as the types of noses, cheeks and rumps. In order to understand the monkeys, it is necessary to study the characteristics of the different groups individually.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "monkey" may originate in a German version of the Big Virgina fable, published circa 1580. In this version of the fable, a character named Moneke is the son of Martin the Ape. The word Moneke may have been derived from the Italian monna, which means "a female ape". The name Moneke likely persisted over time due to the popularity of Reynard the Fox.

A group of monkeys may be referred to as a mission or a tribe.


Macaques in Kam Shan Country Park of Hong Kong
Macaques in Kam Shan Country Park of Hong Kong

The following lists shows where the various monkey families (bolded) are placed in the Primate classification. Note that the smallest grouping that contains them all is the Simiiformes, the simians, which also contains the apes. Calling apes "monkeys" is incorrect. Calling either a simian is correct.

    • Suborder Strepsirrhini: non-tarsier prosimians
    • Suborder Haplorrhini: tarsiers, monkeys and apes
      • Infraorder Tarsiiformes
        • Family Tarsiidae: tarsiers
      • Infraorder Simiiformes: simians
        • Parvorder Platyrrhini: New World monkeys
          • Family Cebidae: marmosets, tamarins, capuchins and squirrel monkeys (56 species)
          • Family Aotidae: night monkeys, owl monkeys, douroucoulis (8 species)
          • Family Pitheciidae: titis, sakis and uakaris (41 species)
          • Family Atelidae: howler, spider and woolly monkeys (24 species)
        • Parvorder Catarrhini
          • Superfamily Cercopithecoidea
            • Family Cercopithecidae: Old World monkeys (135 species)
          • Superfamily Hominoidea: apes
            • Family Hylobatidae: gibbons ("lesser apes") (13 species)
            • Family Hominidae: great apes including humans (7 species)

Monkeys in captivity

As service animals for the disabled

Some organizations, such as Helping Hands in Boston, Massachusetts, have been training capuchin monkeys to assist quadriplegics and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility impairments. After being socialized in a human home as infants, the monkeys undergo extensive training before being placed with a quadriplegic. Around the house, the monkeys help out by doing tasks including microwaving food, washing the quadriplegic's face, and opening drink bottles.

Monkeys in science

In laboratories

Macaques, especially the Rhesus Macaque, and African green monkeys are widely used in animal testing facilities. This is primarily because of their relative ease of handling, their fast reproductive cycle (compared to apes) and their psychological and physical similarity to humans. In the United States, around 50,000 non-human primates, most of them monkeys, have been used in experiments every year since 1973; PDF (136  KiB) 10,000 monkeys were used in the European Union in 2004. Highly sociable animals, monkeys are kept in many different environments.

The use of monkeys in laboratories is controversial. Many people claim that it is cruel and produces little information of value, and there have been many protests, vandalism to testing facilities, and threats to workers. Defenders of tests on monkeys claim that it has led to many important medical breakthroughs, and that the prevention of harm to humans should be a higher priority than the that imposed on monkeys. The topic has become a popular cause for animal rights groups.

In space

A number of countries have used monkeys as part of their space exploration programmes, including the United States and France. The first monkey in space was Gordo who flew in the US Jupiter AM-13 rocket in 1958.

As food

There are a lot of myths about Chinese habits which are mostly contrived, such as the stories about eating monkeys brains.

Scientists from the University of Nottingham speculate that humans caught HIV after hunting and eating the infected chimps.

Monkeys are forbidden to be eaten according to Islamic dietary laws.

Monkeys in culture


Simian statue at a Buddhist shrine in Tokyo, Japan.
Simian statue at a Buddhist shrine in Tokyo, Japan.

Sun Wukong (the "Monkey King"), a character who figures prominently in Chinese mythology, is the main protagonist in the classic comic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Monkeys are prevalent in numerous books, television programs, and movies. The television series Monkey, the literary characters Monsieur Eek and Curious George are all examples.

However, pop culture often incorrectly labels apes, particularly chimpanzees, gibbons, and gorillas, as monkeys. Terry Pratchett makes use of the distinction in his Discworld novels, in which the Librarian of the Unseen University is an orangutan who gets very violent if referred to as a monkey.


Hanuman, a prominent divine entity in Hinduism, is a monkey-like humanoid. Quran, the holy book of Muslims mentions that people who broke the sabbath were turned into monkeys as a punishment.[Qur'an  2:65]


The Monkey is the ninth in the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar. The next time that the monkey will appear as the zodiac sign will be in the year 2016.

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