Contributions to Zoology, 77 (2) – 2008

Short notes and reviews

Progress, prospects and pitfalls in primate biogeography

S. Jaffe , V. Nijman

Oxford Brookes University, School of Social Sciences and Law, Anthropology Centre for Conservation Environment and Development, Oxford OX3 0BP United Kingdom



Review of Primate Biogeography, Progress and Prospects, by Shawn M Lehman and John G Fleagle. Development in Primatology: Progress and Prospects Series (Russ H Tuttle, Series Editor). Springer, New York, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0387-29871-9.

Crustacean Biogeography, The Biogeography of Ground Beetles on Mountains and Islands, Biogeography of Lantern Fish, Island Biogeography of Mammals; some previous titles that deal with the zoogeography of someone’s favourite taxa. And then there is Lehman and Fleagle’s Primate Biogeography, published in the Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects series. When seeking an explanation for the distribution of animals, is there a need for this narrow taxonomic focus? And if so, why focus on primates?

There are three main reasons why the primate order is a highly suitable group for biogeographical analysis. First, they are widespread and diverse. They inhabit a number of continents and a large number of islands, with related taxa frequently geographically separated. Nowadays, primates are largely confined to (sub)tropical South America, Africa and Asia, with exceptions being some macaques and langurs ranging a bit further north in Africa and Asia, and of course humans. But, when the Egyptians were building their pyramids, primate distribution extended further into more temperate zones, including parts of Northern Africa, the Caribbean and China, as far north as the Yellow River (Figure 1). In the Eocene and Miocene, they were also found in North America down to the tip of South America, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. Second, primates are a fairly typical order of mammals; their origin dating back some 91 Mya, with anything between 250-350 extant species (Bininda-Emonds et al., 2007), and an estimated 6,500 species that may have existed at one time or another (Martin, 1993). Third, in comparison with other mammals, most of which are nocturnal, primates are easy to study, providing a detailed picture of their present-day distribution and, given our fascination with our own history, we arguably know more about primate fossil history and lifestyles than any other mammal order.

Fig. 1. Distribution of the Order Primates present and past (partially after Fleagle and Gilbert, Chapter 13).