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Primate Diets

What do Primates Eat

Primates consuming specific diets tend to develop specialisations to consume these foods most notably in terms of their dentition or in the length and structure of their gastrointestinal system (see below).  Importantly though primates are also able to include a wider range of foods where their preferred food is in limited supply, this gives them an advantage over other animals which can find it harder to adapt.  

Diets of primates are determined by a range of physiological factors such as the size of the animal, shape and distribution of its teeth and the size and functioning of the gastrointestinal (Gi) tract

The size of a primate affects food choice. As discussed previously, smaller primates have lower energy demands than larger primates but requirements are higher relative to their size. For a small primate a food source doesn’t need to be abundant as they require less food, but foods do need to be easy to digest and provide more energy i.e. more energy/ gram weight. Meanwhile large primates require large quantities of foods so a food source needs to be in an abundant supply. However, as relative energy demands are lower their food source can be of a lower quality taking longer to digest. This helps to explain why smaller primates can survive on an insectivorous diet where insects are in short supply but easier to digest. while larger primates can survive on leaves and bark of a tree which is harder to digest but in more abundant supply.

Primates have 4 types of teeth – molars, premolars, canines and incisors. Each type of tooth has different functions- premolars and molars have comparatively large surfaces to enable them to crush food, canines are longer teeth pointed to allow them to grip and puncture food and incisors are wedge shaped adapted to seize, puncture and strip of pieces of food. The number, size and shape of a primates dentition varies . New world monkeys such as  marmosets and tamarins  typically have two incisors, one canine tooth and three molars and premolars, whereas old world monkeys such as apes and humans have one less premolar.

The size and shape of primate teeth can also vary to meet specific dietary requirements. For example, gum eating primates such as marmosets tend to have larger stronger incisors enabling them to strip of the bark of trees in order to get at the gum, whereas chimpanzees have sharp canine teeth adapted to catch and eat prey including monkeys and deer.  In general though the teeth of primates are less specialised than other animals and this allows them to adapt well to a range of different diets giving them a competitive advantage over other animals.

GI Tract
The Gastrointestinal Tract (gut) of a primate can also adapt to a range of different diets.
For example primates who are mostly leaf eaters tend to have longer GI tracts than carnivorous primates (faunivores) or primates consuming mostly fruits (frugivores). This adaptation reflects the fact that leaves are much harder to digest to release nutrients. A longer GI tract causes food to move more slowly through the digestive system allowing more time for digestion. Some primates have also developed chambers in the stomach, caecum and colon to allow for bacterial decomposition (fermentation) of the long chain carbohydrates found in leaves and structural parts of plants and trees.

How Primates Eat
Wild primate’s diets will vary depending on the availability of food each season. Some seasons, due to extreme weather conditions, may sometimes lack the appropriate type and amount of food the primate might require necessary. Due to this, primates will eat what’s available rather than what’s appropriate for their specific metabolism and GI, however, these body mechanisms tend to adapt (as previously mentioned).

When planning a diet for a primate in captivity it is essential to consider not only what a primate should eat but also the way they should eat it. In the wild, primates can spend a large proportion of their day hunting or foraging for food. Where foods are provided at specific feeding stations at specific times of the day, the opportunity to hunt or forage for food is removed and this can cause boredom and psychological damage. Generally it is preferable to provide smaller amounts of food at more frequent intervals in the day to reduce boredom and food wastage. It is also a good idea to hide foods to allow primates to forage for foods.

Putting information into practice- planning a primate diet
An ideal feeding strategy will provide a balanced diet:

  • Take account of the natural feeding behaviours of a primate
  • Must meet changing requirements across the lifespan
  • Be acceptable to a primate- i.e. they will consistently eat it.
  • Be practical and economical

A balanced diet will provide an animal with appropriate quantities of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals avoiding over feeding/ underfeeding

In order to take account of natural feeding behaviours a keeper must understand  the foods eaten and feeding behaviours of a primate in the wild and then attempt to provide food  which is as close to the natural form as possible allowing animals to spend similar amounts of time feeding as they would in the wild.

The nutritional requirements of primates change at different stages of life and are largely related to changes in the rate of growth at these stages. Generally rates of growth are faster during infancy, adolescence and pregnancy and consequently, relative nutritional requirements will be higher at these times. Requirements will in contrast reduce at times when growth is not a factor e.g. in an elderly primate, overfeeding at these times can lead to obesity and associated health risks. During pregnancy a mother’s diet and body stores supply all the nutrients required for the developing primate, while in infancy these requirements must be met through the mother’s milk or a milk substitute for hand reared primates. Weaning will begin at different times in different primates and from this point onwards care must be taken to ensure foods meet a primate’s nutritional requirements and, as these requirements show considerable variable between different species, keepers must refer to species specific guides

Food must be presented in a way that is acceptable to a primate and be palatable to them- a keeper should monitor uptake of foods provided to check for acceptability


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