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Characteristics of New World Monkeys

Abhijit Naik
New World monkeys are not differentiated from the Old World species on the basis of geographic range alone. A closer look at the characteristics of New World monkey species and you will realize that they are actually quite different from the Old World species in terms of both physical features and behavior.

Did You Know?

Fossil evidence suggests that the Simiiformes infraorder of primates split into the two parvorders: Platyrrhini (New World monkeys) and Catarrhini (apes and Old World monkeys) around 40 million years ago.
New World monkeys are species belonging to the five families of primates found in Central and South America, as well as parts of southern Mexico. Their geographic range predominantly spans the tropical rainforests of South America.
Only a few species, like the Mexican spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi vellerosus) and Guatemalan black howler (Alouatta pigra), are found northward in southern Mexico. Similarly, species like the black howler (Alouatta caraya) and brown howler (Alouatta guariba) are found southward into northern Argentina.
The five families of New World monkeys, namely Callitrichidae, Cebidae, Aotidae, Pitheciidae, and Atelidae, together account for over 90 species. These species are classified into two super families: Cebidae and Callitricidae. The Cebidae superfamily comprises squirrel monkeys, howlers, capuchins, owl monkeys, titis, uakaris, sakis, and spider monkeys.
On the other hand, the Callitricidae superfamily consists of marmosets and tamarins. All these species are a part of the Platyrrhini parvorder of primates, and are bound together by certain characteristic traits.

New World Monkeys: Characteristic Traits


New World monkeys are small to medium in size, which makes them smaller than their Old World counterparts.
The smallest New World species is the pygmy marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea), measuring 5.5 to 6.3 inches and weighing around 4.2 to 6.7 oz. In fact, it is the world's smallest monkey. It's also worth noting that marmosets in general are the smallest of all monkey species.
On the other hand, the southern muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides)―measuring 22 to 28 inches in length and weighing 26 to 33 lb―is the largest New World monkey in the world.


Another characteristic trait of New World monkeys is their nose, which is flatter and has side-facing nostrils.
The name of this parvorder, Platyrrhini means flat-nosed. Their flat nose is by far the most obvious point of distinction between them and Old World monkeys.


As far as vision is concerned, one can see a wide range in the New World species.
Howler monkeys, for instance, are trichromatic, male spider monkeys are dichromatic, while owl monkeys, also known as night monkeys, are monochromatic. So howler monkeys see all three colors, while owl monkeys only see in black and white.

Prehensile tail

Most species of New World monkeys have a prehensile tail.
These species use it to grasp and pick objects, and even to hang upside down from trees. Their tail is strong enough to support their entire body weight. Like the Old World species, marmosets and tamarins do not have prehensile tails.


Except for the members of Cebidae family, like capuchins and squirrel monkeys, who have a pseudo-opposable thumb, New World monkeys do not have opposable thumbs. Their thumb is in line with other fingers.


The diet of New World monkeys varies depending on the family or genera you take into consideration.
These species eat fruits, nuts, flowers, bird eggs, insects, spiders, and even small mammals at times. Like other primates, even New World monkeys are armed with specialized teeth adapted to eat a variety of foods. They have twelve premolars as opposed to eight in Old World monkeys.

Mating and Parenting

New World monkeys are known to form monogamous pairs.
Furthermore, they invest a significant amount of time in caring for their young ones. Old World species are neither monogamous, nor do they spend time caring for their young ones.


Also, almost all New World monkeys are arboreal.
They resort to quadrupedal climbing and brachiating when it comes to locomotion. It is also worth noting that quadrupedal climbers use their prehensile tail―semi-prehensile in some species―as an additional limb to secure themselves while climbing. Brachiating refers to movement by using arms to swing from one branch to another.
It's a well-known fact that monkeys are divided into two groups: New World monkeys, found in the Americas, and Old World monkeys, found in Africa and Asia. We also know that monkeys originated in the Old World and split into these two groups around 40 million years ago.
If there is a question that is yet to be answered, it is this: where did the New World monkeys come from? While some sources suggest that they crossed a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, others state that they rafted to cross over from Africa into South America.
Monkeys crossing the Atlantic may seem a little too far fetched, but we need to keep in mind that back then, the continents were closer than they are today.