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What’s the Difference Between a Monkey and an Ape?

  |   Wildlife & Flora

Can you tell the difference between a monkey and an ape? Monkeys and apes are two different kinds of animals under the same classification, primate. They do look similar, however once you start learning more about them, it becomes very clear that they are in fact, very different. 

From the pages of our staff's Amazon travel journal, read about Jon's adventure in the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, where he learned the difference between a monkey and an ape. 

Howler Monkey

Howler Monkey


Amazon Travel Journal: The Difference Between a Monkey and an Ape


As I swatted off the latest feeding frenzy of mosquitos (note to self, always put repellent on your clothes in future), the guttural calls of a howler monkey echoes in the distance. My expert guide from the Ayapua team tells me it’s an enlarged bone in its neck that allows it to ‘howl’ as it is doing. It’s the group male, and although it sounds worryingly close, thankfully it could be as far as 30km away. I’d already seen one from our skiff ride but didn’t fancy a face-to-face encounter. 


We are fortunate enough to be in the depths of the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, renowned for its rich eco diversity. As we track a group of much cuter squirrel monkeys, adrenaline surges through my body, both with the fear and excitement of the possibility of encountering an anaconda, jaguar or heaven forbid, tarantula. We delve into untamed rainforest, dodging tangled vines and stooping under over-hanging branches, taking care not to tread on any vipers, or walk into any giant cobwebs. 


Coming to a standstill, silence and leaves fall, and as we look to the trees for our quarry, my mind drifts and I can’t help but think about a question a fellow passenger had asked me. Is a monkey an ape? Or are they different species or sub-species? Where do chimpanzees and gorillas fit into all this? I naturally played back the Planet of the Apes movie in my head and thought they didn't call it Planet of the Monkeys for a reason. 



How to Tell Them Apart

Well for those of you interested, you could look at their tails, nose, feet, size or how they behave. The easiest way by far is to look at their tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not


Bornean Orangutan (ph. Wikipedia) 

Bornean Orangutan (ph. Wikipedia) 

Apes are generally larger in stature, with bigger chests and human-like shoulders which allow them to swing from branch to branch. Monkeys’ shoulder bones are a different structure which means they can’t do this, but you will see them running along the tops of branches. 

Really I should’ve known the answer straight away because of where I was geographically. Apes only live in Africa and Asia as they never evolved in South America - being in Peru I could only have been looking at monkeys, more specifically ‘New World’ (The Americas) monkeys. 

To make it a little tricky, there are some (‘Old World’ ) monkeys that actually belong to the Catarrhini and so have similar nose, teeth and feet characteristics as the apes. These include Baboons and Macaques. The difference is that they are found in the ‘Old World’ (Europe, Africa and Asia) their tails are not prehensile and they can be terrestrial. There are also tailless species such as the Barbary Macaque monkey that often gets accidentally classed as an ape.  

Capuchin Monkey

Capuchin Monkey

Taking a closer look there are some more subtle differences. New World monkeys in general have wide, flat noses with side-facing nostrils, tend to be smaller and arboreal (tree-dwelling), form monogamous relationships, are omnivorous, have prehensile tails and don’t have opposable thumbs. Old World monkeys are medium to large in size, have thin noses with down-facing nostrils, are medium to large in size and can be arboreal or terrestrial, typically are promiscuous, don’t have prehensile tails, are omnivorous but predominantly vegetarian and have opposable thumbs.


To tell the difference between Old and New World Primates you just have to look at their noses or ask them their scientific Latin names for that matter. The New World monkeys or Platyrrhini which means flat-nosed, surprisingly have flatter noses with side-facing nostrils. The Old World Primates or Catarrhini which means down-nosed, have narrow noses with down-facing nostrils. If you wanted to look inside their mouths you’d also find that the New World monkeys have more teeth (12 premolars instead of 8). 


Apes are subdivided into the lesser apes (Gibbons, Siamangs – smaller, longer arms) and great apes (Chimps, Gorillas, Orangutans, Bonobos).


family of monkeys

So I can now happily tell you that the Planet of the Apes was populated by Chimps, Gorillas, Orangutans and Gibbons and in the depths of the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, if you are lucky enough, or have the expert guides from the Ayapua team helping you, you won’t see any apes but you will see (or hear) and be entertained and amazed by several species of monkey. I was lucky enough to see Howlers, Monk Sakis, Spider Monkeys, Woolly Monkeys, Owl Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, and of course our cheeky monkey (sorry, cheeky ape!) guide who played havoc with my arachnophobia.

View our Monkeys Seen on a River Cruise article for more information about what to expect on an Amazon River cruise. For more information about traveling to the Amazon, Contact Us

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