Found only in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia, the great apes – orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos – were once grouped in the separate family Pongidae, but are now considered part of the family Hominidae, which also includes humans and early hominids.
Our hominid ancestors diverged from the great apes some seven million years ago, but we still share a strong genetic kinship; the chimpanzees and bonobos, generally considered to be our closest living relatives, share a remarkable 98.7 percent of our DNA.
The great apes are the largest living primates, with opposable thumbs, shaggy coarse hair, and an unfurred, highly expressive face. Like the gibbons, they do not have tails. Unlike humans, their arms are longer than their legs, and their big toes are also opposable, allowing them to grip branches equally well with hands or feet.
All great apes divide their time between the trees and the ground – with the exception of the orangutans, which are primarily arboreal. Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos usually walk on all four limbs to support their weight, but they can also walk upright and some seem to have a preference for it.
ACTIVITY: Find these species on our Interactive Primate Tree.
How They Live
Intelligent by human standards, the great apes show a remarkable capacity for learning from each other in the wild and from humans in captivity. They have complex social systems and are quite like us in their reproductive biology. Ape mothers usually devote several years to caring for each infant.
All great apes have a wide range of vocalizations, postures and facial expressions, and each species has been taught to use some form of sign language in laboratory settings. Adults are often proficient with a variety of tools, for dominance displays as well as use in feeding.
Chimpanzees are by far the most adept. Their “toolkit” varies from place to place, but may include leaf sponges, fly whisks, ant-fishing twigs and nut-cracking stones. Learning to use tools correctly requires years of observation and practice by young chimpanzees, and in some cases their parents or other adults engage in active teaching – which, in its essence, is identical to human tutoring.
Threats to Great Apes
For all their strength and intelligence, the great apes face a darkening future: every species and subspecies is Endangered or worse, and some unique populations are on the edge of extinction.
Deforestation – the destruction of rainforest for logging, farmland and industrial agriculture – is the prime threat to their survival and the prime obstacle to their recovery. But hunting and disease are becoming severe dangers as well. The bushmeat trade accepts chimpanzees and gorillas as eagerly as any other wild animal, with an occasional sideline in the pet trade for orphaned infants.
NARRATIVE: Read a first person account of a visit to a Bushmeat market in Equatorial Guinea
Human economies have only accelerated the destruction of ancestral ape habitat, and even national parks are no guarantee of safety. If the current trends continue, and if we fail to act, some of the great apes – our closest relatives – may be extinct within thirty years’ time.
ACT: Stop the Clock on Species Extinction