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One primate species is driving most of the others to extinction

Scientists surveyed every known primate species. Sixty percent are threatened with extinction.

Two monkeys in the snow
A baby monkey is cuddled by its mother to keep warm as the sub-zero temperatures freeze life during a fresh snowfall in Tangmarg.
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Recent political events — Brexit, the election of Donald Trump — have majorly shaken up world order. The future is now looking pretty uncertain.

But it’s not so bad! We human beings are lucky. For most other species of primate — the branch of mammals we belong to — the future is far, far more uncertain. For most primates, there may be no future.

A new report in Science Advances finds around 60 percent of primate species are threatened with extinction, all due to the actions of, well, us. The report, which is the most comprehensive analysis of primate populations in the world to date, also concludes 75 percent of primate species have declining populations.

The report finds every member of the primate family Hominidae (great apes, which includes gorillas and chimpanzees) is endangered or critically threatened (except for us). Around 87 percent of Indriidae (larger lemurs) are similarly endangered or threatened.

Not all primate families are doing so poorly. Just a few species of Galagidae (bushbabies) are threatened. (If you’ve never Googled “Galagidae” before, do it now. Look at those eyes!)

Science Advances

Everywhere primates live, scientists find declines: “87% of species in Madagascar are threatened, as are 73% in Asia, 37% in mainland Africa, and 36% in the Neotropics (i.e. Central and South America),” the report states.

Science Advances

“Unless we act, human-induced environmental threats in primate range regions will result in a continued and accelerated reduction in … biodiversity,” the authors conclude.

The reasons primates are dying aren’t surprising: Deforestation via logging, mining, agriculture, oil exploration, and hunting are identified as the top reasons. These intrusions can result in forest fragmentation that leads primate populations to be cut off from one another. That reduces genetic diversity, which further reduces their ability to survive changes in the environment.

And then there’s the threat of climate change. Scientists admit they don’t fully understand climate change’s impact on primates, but it surely won’t help the situation.

It’s not all bad, however. The report points out that a few species are better equipped to adapt to these changes than others:

Some primates are more behaviorally and ecologically resilient than others when faced with habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. Bornean orangutans, for example, can survive, at least temporarily, in logged forests, Acacia plantations, and oil palm plantations. Baboons (Papio), Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus), and macaques (Macaca) are particularly adaptable and can survive even in urban areas. Chimpanzees appear to evaluate risks when crop-foraging and adjust their foraging patterns in deciding whether to exploit fragmented forests near humans. Bonobos tend to avoid areas of high human activity, fragmented forests, or both, and although this may suggest flexibility, the presence of humans appears to significantly reduce their access to potentially available habitat.

But a world with just a handful of primate species is not ideal. And it’s not just because of the loss of biodiversity (and the resulting chaos it inflicts on ecosystems).

The loss of primates is the loss of our evolutionary history

Chimpanzee's At Taronga Zoo Escape Sydney Heat Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Primates are our closest relatives on Earth. If we can understand them better, we can understand ourselves. Here’s how Carl Zimmer at the New York Times explains it:

The first primates evolved roughly 80 million years ago, and then split into the living lineages over millions of years. By comparing our biology to those of other primates, we have learned about the evolution of our brains, our vision and our vulnerability to diseases.

When we lose the primates, we lose a bit of ourselves.

Consider the work of primatologist Frans de Waal. For decades, he has made thousands of observations of primate communities. He's shown that many primates will console one another after fights. He's seen them hug and kiss. In 2010, he co-authored a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science compiling data from more than 3,000 observations of chimpanzee fights. The paper found that chimps will commonly console the losers of fights — a behavior especially pronounced among chimps with kinship bonds. His work suggests that human empathy has a biological basis that predates humanity itself.

That’s a profound conclusion, which would be impossible to reach if there are no primates to study in the first place.

The scientists’ warning is dire, but they don’t think it’s too late. They suggest expanding protected wildlife sanctuaries, cracking down on the illegal bushmeat trade, educating the public on conservation, and being smarter about development.

“We have one last opportunity to greatly reduce or even eliminate the human threats to primates and their habitats, to guide conservation efforts, and to raise worldwide awareness of their predicament,” the authors write. “Primates are critically important to humanity. After all, they are our closest living biological relatives.”

More on biodiversity loss

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