The great ape family is the smallest mammalian family with 7 living species, 6 of which live in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia. The seventh is Homo sapiens, our species.
This family include: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans.
With a common gene pool of between 97% and 98.5%, other great apes are our closest cousins in the animal kingdom.
In both Africa and Asia, great apes – bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans – are rapidly losing much of their forest habitat to human activities such as agriculture, mining, and commercial logging.
With an estimated population of between 518,000 and 688,000 gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans living in the wild, all Great Ape species are either Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and CITES Appendix 1, indicating that they are at very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, probably within our own lifetime.
People often confuse apes and monkeys. Although there are a number of differences between apes and monkeys (apes have a longer lifespan, larger body size, larger brain-to-body size ratio, and higher intelligence) – the main difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not have tails.
The smallest living species is the bonobo at 30–40 kilograms in weight, and the largest being the eastern gorillas, with males weighing 140–180 kilograms. In all great apes, the males are, on average, larger and stronger than the females, although the degree of sexual dimorphism varies greatly among species.
Although most living species are predominantly quadrupedal, they are all able to use their hands for gathering food or nesting materials, and, in some cases, for tool use.
All species are omnivorous, but chimpanzees and orangutans primarily eat fruit.
When gorillas run short of fruit at certain times of the year or in certain regions, they resort to eating shoots and leaves, often of bamboo, a type of grass.
Wild orangutans have more than 300 types of fruit available to them in their rain forest home.
Nest-building by great apes is now considered to be not just animal architecture, but as an important instance of tool use.
Gestation in great apes lasts 8–9 months, and results in the birth of a single offspring, or, rarely, twins. The young are born helpless, and require care for long periods of time.
Gorillas and chimpanzees live in family groups of around five to ten individuals, although much larger groups are sometimes noted.
Chimpanzees have complex social relationships. Apart from the dominant leader, there are also groups of individuals with some level of authority. An entire chimp community can sometimes have as many as 100 members.
Gorillas have various methods of communication, including some 25 distinct vocalisations.
Gorillas are considered highly intelligent. One famous captive-born individual, Koko, has been taught sign language since she was a year old. By the age of 40, she had a library of about 1,000 signs and could understand some 2,000 words of English.
There are two gorilla species: the eastern gorillas and the western gorillas. The western gorilla lives in west central Africa, while the eastern gorilla lives in east central Africa. They are separated by about 900 kilometers (560 miles) of Congo Basin forest.
There are also two species orangutan: Sumatran orangutan – lives on the island of Sumatra and Bornean orangutan — lives on the island of Borneo.
The word “orangutan” comes from the Malay language and means ‘person of the forest‘ – from the words ‘orang’ meaning people and ‘hutan’ meaning forest.
Orangutans are more solitary than other apes. Males are loners. As they move through the forest they make plenty of rumbling, howling calls to ensure that they stay out of each other’s way. The “long call” can be heard 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.
Researchers have identified at least 32 orangutan vocalizations. The “kiss-squeak” expresses excitement or fear.A “grumph” sounds like a belch and is a sign of disturbance or annoyance. Mothers warn their babies to stay close by making a soft, scraping sound.
Chimpanzees have been commonly stereotyped in popular culture, where they are most often cast in standardized roles as childlike companions, sidekicks or clowns.
Physically, bonobos resemble chimpanzees, a close relative. In fact, earlier scientists thought the bonobo was just a smaller version of the common chimpanzee and so the term “pygmy chimpanzee” was used.
Some great ape individuals are slow while others are brilliant. The range of intelligence of all great apes varies, just as ours does.
Some scientists believe that bonobos are the most intelligent of the primates (other than humans, of course!). Maybe that’s because they share many of our human behaviors, such as teaching their young social skills, using tools to get food, and working together for the good of the entire troop.
Humans have a large and highly developed prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with higher cognition. They are intelligent, capable of episodic memory, have flexible facial expressions, self-awareness and a theory of mind. The human mind is capable of introspection, private thought, imagination, volition and forming views on existence. This has allowed great technological advancements and complex tool development possible through reason and the transmission of knowledge to future generations. Language, art and trade are defining characteristics of humans. Long-distance trade routes might have led to cultural explosions and resource distribution that gave humans an advantage over other similar species.