Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Studying mammals: The social climbers
Studying mammals: The social climbers

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 The anthropoids

As you work through this course you will come across boxes, like this one, which give you advice about the study skills that you will be developing as you progress through the course. To avoid breaking up the flow of the text, they will usually appear at the start or end of the sections.

In this course you'll come across aspects of primate biology that are by their nature complex. You'll appreciate that primates are sophisticated mammals, and a good deal of detailed research work - a flavour of which is provided in what follows - has revealed just how subtle and intricate their biology is. Also, as with other areas of biology, our scientific understanding of primate biology is incomplete, so searching questions that may come to mind as you read often can't be easily answered - at least not without a good deal more study. You may need to read some parts of the text that follows several times, building up your understanding step-by-step. Referring back to earlier sections often helps, for example to become confident of the new terminology. Don't become over-concerned with every single detail of the information given - you should focus on the underlying ideas and concepts.

As well as the course text, you will be using The Life of Mammals book (LoM) and related The Life of Mammals DVDs, as described in the introduction to this course. Before you go any further, watch 'The Social Climbers' on the DVD and read LoM Chapter 9. Unless stated otherwise, all the page references you encounter in this course will be to LoM.

The social climbers of this course, the monkeys, are members of the order Primates. Some of the characteristics of primates are thumbs and big toes that are opposable to some degree, flattened fingernails instead of claws, sensitive finger pads, prehensile tails (but not in all species), dentition suited to an omnivorous diet, and stereoscopic vision.

The primates in S182_8 Studying mammals: life in the trees - the lorises, lemurs and bush-babies - are, using the convention in LoM, referred to as prosimians. In this course we will focus on the other suborder of primates, the Anthropoidea - monkeys, apes and humans. Some taxonomists favour the exclusion of tarsiers from the prosimian grouping, including them within the newly named haplorhine suborder, alongside monkeys, apes and humans. Following the approach of LoM, throughout this course I'll stick to the traditional distinction between prosimians and anthropoids. I'll confine my attention here primarily to monkeys; you can learn more about the anthropoid apes and about humans in S182_10 Studying mammals: food for thought.

Throughout the TV programme 'The Social Climbers', David Attenborough (DA) stresses the importance of colour vision and makes many references to the large brain and intelligence of monkeys, which enable them to eat foods inaccessible to many other animals and to exploit social situations. In this course, I will be looking at characteristics of primates that differ, or are enhanced, in anthropoids compared with prosimians, and discussing these attributes in relation to the evolution of the large anthropoid brain and the evolution of humans.