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: chimps, 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 [Warning: Graphic Images], 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.
When free from the threat of hunting, habitat loss, and disease, chimpanzees can live 50 years or more.
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 less. 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 are territorial, and the males of a community will patrol the boundaries of their territory. Battles may occur between communities. The size of a chimps territory varies greatly, and can be anywhere from 2 to 215 miles squared (5 to 560 km squared.)
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 approximately 9 months, just like in 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.
Hear Kiley, one of Save the Chimps’ residents, hooting!
Grooming has a two-fold purpose: cleaning, and cementing the bonds of family and friendship. By running their fingers through each others' 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 sooth an upset stomach or get rid of intestinal parasites.
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.