Chimpanzees are great apes (not monkeys) who are native to the continent of Africa. If you ever wonder if you are looking at an ape or a monkey, look for a tail. Monkeys have tails, apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, and humans –do not. Along with bonobos, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. We share approximately 98% of our DNA with chimps, so it’s fair to say that we are 98% chimpanzee, and chimps are 98% human. Chimpanzees are an endangered species. Millions of chimpanzees used to live throughout equatorial Africa from southern Senegal through Central Africa to western Tanzania. This is an area almost the size of the United States. Today, there are estimated to be merely 170,000-300,000 chimpanzees left in Africa, and their population is decreasing rapidly. One recent census in the Ivory Coast revealed that the chimp population there had decreased 90% in just the past twenty years.
The primary threats to chimpanzees are habitat destruction, hunting, and disease. The increasing human population is encroaching ever deeper into even protected areas of chimpanzee habitats, and large scale logging is now a major threat to the forest primates of Africa. Subsistence hunting of chimpanzees as a source of meat is nothing new, but there is now a thriving but unsustainable commercial market for bushmeat (the meat of wild animals), including chimpanzees. Increased contact with humans, both local people and eco-tourists, has also brought the threat of diseases which may be mild in humans but lethal to chimps.
Chimpanzee communities may range in size from 15 to 120 chimps of both sexes and all ages. Chimps live in what is coined a “fission-fusion society” in which all community members know each other but feed, travel, and sleep in much smaller groups of six or fewer. The makeup of these smaller groups changes frequently when parties meet, intermingle, and disperse in different combinations or when somebody decides to drop out.
At times, community members have large gatherings in which at least half the community is present. Gatherings are highly social events where group members play, breed, and groom. Jane Goodall describes gatherings as “the hub of chimpanzee social life.”
Chimpanzees do have a hierarchy, and generally each community has an alpha male who is considered the most powerful member of the group. However, a male’s success as alpha is often dependent upon the support of the females, conferring upon them a great deal of influence as well. Chimp hierarchies are not a strict “pecking order”, but are complex, fluid, flexible, and change often.
Chimpanzees live in multi-male, multi-female communities. The females may mate with multiple males, and the males thus generally treat all offspring as if they were their own, since there is no way to know for sure. Females have a bright pink bottom that signals to males when they are fertile. A female chimp will usually have her first child at around the age of 14 years old. The gestation period is about 8.5 months, very similar to humans. The infants are dependent upon their mother for at least 5 years, and can usually live independently by age 6, but still spend considerable time with their mothers even into adulthood. Chimps are considered adults by age 15. A female chimp will not be fertile again until her child is fully weaned, so at most a female chimp will give birth every five years. She may have approximately 4-6 children in her lifetime.
Chimpanzees communicate with each other through a complex system of vocalizations, gestures, body postures and facial expressions. They can communicate with each other even over long distances with loud calls called pant-hoots, or by drumming the buttresses of trees. They say hello to each other by panting, indicate displeasure by grunting and flicking their wrists at the one who has offended them, laugh while playing and tickling, stand their hair up on end when they are nervous, and scream when they are angry and upset. From fear and anger to joy or excitement – chimpanzees make it pretty clear what they are feeling.
Grooming has a two-fold purpose: cleaning, and cementing the bonds of family and friendship. By running their fingers through each other’s hair, chimpanzees remove dirt, dead skin, and parasites. They will also clean any cuts or scrapes another chimp may have. Grooming is also the single most important social activity and takes up a lot of each day’s rest periods. Through these actions chimpanzees nourish friendships, comfort each other, and patch up disagreements. Chimps are also very socially sophisticated (some might say manipulative) and may use grooming to get something they want.
For instance, mothers of young babies are often groomed by curious chimps hoping to get a closer look at the newcomer.
A chimpanzee may ask to be groomed by looking at someone and scratching or offering an arm or leg. Chimps will also ask to groom another by smacking their lips or quietly clacking their teeth together, and inching towards the chimp they wish to groom. Pairs (or even larger groups) sit together, grooming each other simultaneously, or one grooming the other, sometimes taking turns. They will even manipulate each other’s limbs to get better access to a particular part of the body. Those on the receiving end get more and more relaxed and may even doze off. There is no doubt that chimps enjoy grooming and enjoy being groomed!
What Chimps Eat
Chimpanzees are omnivores. They rely heavily on a wide variety fruit and leaves, but also eat insects, bark, eggs, nuts, and even hunt monkeys and other small animals for meat. Chimpanzees spend a large part of their day looking for food and eating, but they do not wander aimlessly through the forest hoping to bump into food. They know where they are going and remember from year to year where food is located and when a particular fruit is ripe. When they hunt, the chimps coordinate their efforts and share the meat amongst each other. Also, there is evidence that in addition to their regular diet, chimpanzees may eat certain plants for their medicinal value, such as to soothe an upset stomach or get rid of intestinal parasites.
Jane Goodall was the first researcher to discover that chimpanzees make and use tools when she observed a chimp strip a stem of its leaves and use the stem to “fish” for termites. Since that groundbreaking discovery, chimps all over Africa have been observed making and using tools in a wide variety of situations. Besides fishing for termites, chimpanzees use rocks as hammers and anvils to pound open nuts, use leaves as napkins and sponges, use sticks to probe or break open beehives for honey, and manufacture spears to kill small mammals. Some chimp populations even have “tool kits”, a collection of different tools used in sequence to access a particular food source. It can take chimps years to perfect their use of tools, as many as five years to learn how to fish for termites, ten years to learn how to pound open palm nuts with stone hammers and anvils. Tool use gets taught and passed down from generation to generation. There have even been archaeological discoveries of stone tools used by chimps over 4,000 years ago, similar to stone tools used by chimps today to crack open nuts.
Communication, behavior, diet, and tool use varies between chimpanzee communities.
The differences between communities are sometimes so profound that researchers have determined that chimpanzees have what amounts to cultural differences. Just as a person in the US differs culturally from a person in Japan, for example, so does a chimp in Gombe, Tanzania differ culturally from a chimp in Tai Forest, Ivory Coast.
Chimpanzees are complex, intelligent, fascinating beings who have captured the imagination of humans for centuries. They are our cousins, like us in so many way, and are sadly being threatened on all sides by human encroachment in the wild and exploitation in captivity. It will take a concerted effort to ensure their continued survival in the forests of Africa into the future.
Chimpanzees are fascinating beings. Our list of chimp facts contains information about chimpanzee social behavior and natural habitat, along with facts about chimpanzee protection efforts. Find out the similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans, with primate facts and trivia.
- Chimpanzees are our closest living relative because we share all but 1.4% of our DNA with chimps. Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas or orangutans.
- Chimpanzee habitat has been severely depleted. Chimpanzees used to live in 25 countries throughout tropical Africa, in an area almost the size of the United States. Today, chimpanzees are extinct in five of those countries and endangered in five others.
- Fifty years ago, there were probably a million chimpanzees living in Africa. Today, chimpanzees are an endangered species, with as few as 170,000 left in the wild.
- Nearly 2,000 chimpanzees live in the United States. Approximately 850 live in laboratories. About 250 chimps are located in accredited zoos, 600 live in sanctuaries, and 250 are in private hands, such as the entertainment industry, unaccredited “roadside” zoos, and the pet trade. For more information on where captive chimpanzees are living in the US, visit www.chimpcare.org.
- In the wild, chimpanzees live in large groups of 15 to 120 individuals. They communicate with one another through a complex, subtle system of vocalizations, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures.
- Chimpanzees in the wild have different cultures. That is, different groups of chimpanzees that live in different parts of Africa have unique behaviors, tools, and traditions that are passed down from generation to generation.
- In their natural habitats, chimpanzees are known to use plants with medicinal value to self-medicate themselves.
- The time a female chimpanzee is pregnant, known as the gestation period, is 230-260 days.
- At birth, a chimpanzee weighs about four pounds and has a white tuft of fur on his/her rump.
- Like human infants, newborn chimpanzees are entirely dependent on their mothers for warmth, protection, transportation, and nourishment.
- In their natural habitat, chimpanzees nurse for 5 years. During this time, they learn what to eat and what to avoid by watching their mothers and other adult chimpanzees.
- Chimpanzees begin wandering short distances from their mothers at about 8 months of age.
- Chimpanzees enter adulthood at about 13 years of age. Chimpanzee mothers may enjoy life-long bonds with their adult sons and daughters.
- Chimpanzees make and use tools, such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for insects or honey, spears to hunt small mammals, and wads of crumbled leaves to sponge drinking water from hard-to-reach places.
- Some chimpanzees have learned to “talk” using American Sign Language, symbols, and computer graphics. Some have even combined signs to come up with new words. When the famous sign language chimpanzee, Washoe, first saw a swan, she called it a “water bird.”
- Chimpanzees, like humans, use facial expressions to convey emotions.
- Chimpanzees have emotions similar to those we call joy, anger, grief, sorrow, pleasure, boredom, and depression. They also comfort and reassure one another by kissing and embracing.
- Adult chimps are estimated to be at least twice as strong, and perhaps even seven times as strong, as humans. This trait is one of the reasons that people who have chimps as pets often end up giving their chimp to an organization like Save the Chimps.
- Chimpanzees have 32 teeth.
- Chimpanzees’ body temperature is the same as humans, at 98.6 degrees.
- Standing upright on two legs, a chimpanzee may reach over 4 feet in height, and weigh more than 150 lbs.
- Even though chimpanzees’ habitat is often near water, chimps cannot swim, due to the structure and density of their bodies.
- A chimpanzee’s senses of sight, taste, and hearing are similar to those of humans.
- Like humans, chimpanzees eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Chimpanzees not only have opposable thumbs, like humans, but they also have opposable big toes, so they can grab things with their hands and their feet.
- While humans have blood types A, B, O, and AB, chimps have only A or O.
- Many older captive chimpanzees suffer from cardiac disease and take the same medications that humans take for heart conditions.
- Chimpanzees can live for more than 50 years. This is another reason why chimps who were purchased as pets often end up at sanctuaries.
To learn more about chimp behavior and what a day-in-the-life is like for chimpanzees at the Sanctuary, visit our Meet the Chimps and Chimp Life pages.