Although there have been few studies of self-scratching in primates, some have reported distinct differences in whether hands or feet are used, and these variations seem to reflect the evolutionary history of the Order. Monkeys and prosimians use both hands and feet to self-scratch while African great apes use hands almost exclusively. Gibbons represent an evolutionary divergence between monkeys and great apes and incidental observations at the Gibbon Conservation Center pointed to a difference in self-scratching among the four extant gibbon genera (Hoolock, Nomascus, Symphalangus, and Hylobates). To validate and further explore these preliminary observations, we collected systematic data on self-scratching from 32 gibbons, including nine species and all four genera. To supplement gibbon data, we also collected self-scratching information from 18 great apes (four species), five prosimians (two species), 26 New World Monkeys (nine species) and 20 Old World Monkeys (seven species). All monkeys and some prosimians used both hands and feet to self-scratch, whereas one prosimian species used only feet. All African great apes used hands exclusively (orangutans were an exception displaying occasional foot-use). This appears to represent a fundamental difference between monkeys and great apes in limb use. Interestingly, there was a clear difference in self-scratching between the four gibbon genera. Hylobates and Symphalangus self-scratched only with hands (like all African great apes), while Hoolock and Nomascus self-scratched with both hands and feet (like monkeys and prosimians). This difference in gibbon behavior may reflect the evolutionary history of gibbons as Hoolock and Nomascus are thought to have evolved before both Hylobates and Symphalangus. What evolutionary pressures led to this divergent pattern is currently opaque; however, this shift in limb preference may result from niche separation across the order facilitating differences in the behavioral repertoire associated with hind and forelimbs.
Mootnick, A. R., Cunningham, C. L., & Baker, E. (2012). Phylogenetic separation in limb use in captive gibbons (Hylobatidae): a comparison across the primate order. American Journal of Primatology, 74(11), 1035–1043. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajp.22057