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Chimpanzees are primates that belong to the anthropoid great ape family Pongidae, which includes gibbons, gorillas, and orangutans. Chimpanzees are in the suborder Anthropoidea, the order of Primates, and one of only two members of the genus Pan. As Pan troglodytes, Chimpanzees were until recently considered to be the sole members of the genus Pan. However, Bonobos, which have been variously called pygmy, dwarf, or Gracile chimpanzees, are now classified as the second species in the genus, Pan paniscus. Bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) are found only on the south side of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Chimpanzees are not known to swim, so rivers have acted as major barriers to their movements. Chimpanzees are found in equatorial central Africa, from Senegal to western Tanzania in tropical rain forests and savannas. There are three subspecies of the common chimpanzee (or simply chimpanzee).
The subspecies Pan troglodytes verus can be found from Gambia to the Niger River. The Pan troglodytes troglodytes subspecies live in the forest regions in central Africa. The subspecies Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi is found mainly in western Uganda and Tanzania. Like the other great apes, chimpanzees do not have a tail. They are strong animals with powerful arms and legs, and an arm span twice their height. They can easily grasp objects with their hands or with their feet. They range between 3.25 feet (one meter) to 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) in height. Males usually weigh 110 pounds (50 kilograms) on average, while females weigh 90 pounds (41 kilograms) on average. However, in captivity some males have attained weights of 200 pounds and females weights of 175 pounds. Chimpanzees have large ears, and arms that are longer than their legs. They can walk upright on their feet for short distances, but they usually walk on all fours. With their arms extended, their front limbs rest on the knuckles of their hands. While some chimpanzees are covered with long black hair, they are usually bald from the forehead to their crown. Some have dark faces and some have tan faces.
Diet and Community Groups
Chimpanzees eat insects, leaves, fruit, nuts, bird’s eggs, fish, and occasionally small animals such as redtailed monkeys, small bush pigs, or small antelopes. They may engage at times in organized hunts. During the day, chimpanzees move about while foraging in small bands or parties of six to a dozen members. The bands, part of a community of 25-100 members, may be all male, all mothers with infants, or mixed bands of males and females. Individuals come and go from the community. An alpha male usually rules the community, although groups of all females have been seen. Females tend to move about as individuals and eventually migrate to a separate chimpanzee community, while males usually stay in their birth community. Sexual maturity occurs around 10 or 11 years of age, with physical maturation by age 14. Mating takes place throughout the year, with a gestation period of about eight months. However, females bear only once every three or four years. The newborn chimpanzee is helpless like human babies; their mothers care for them until about five years of age.
Chimpanzees can live to be 50 years old in the wilds. However, only a few live that long. Their natural enemies are leopards, cheetahs, lions, and other chimpanzee communities. Encounters with another community may incite a deadly conflict. The greatest enemy of chimpanzees is man.
Connection to Humans
Using tools has been among the behaviors of chimpanzees observed in recent studies. West African chimpanzees have been reported using rocks as tools in order to crack open tough nuts. In East Africa, they have been observed using twigs as tools for feeding on termites and ants. Trees provide places of rest and sleep during afternoon naps. At night, they build nests from leaves; however, they are diurnal, and often forage at night. Chimpanzees have been known for centuries, but were only closely studied beginning in the 20th century. Researchers have found that chimpanzees and humans share a number of physical and social traits. Physically, chimpanzees and humans share almost completely (99 percent) identical polypeptides, which are proteins. The similarities between humans and chimpanzees have made them inviting subjects for medical and psychological research.
Chimpanzees are genetically the closest to humans. They have been used extensively in laboratories for medical research because they are subject to diseases similar to those of humans. These include the common cold, pneumonia, poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, influenza, and chicken pox. A disease outbreak can threaten a whole community with destruction. Ebola and other zoonotic diseases are of growing concern to researches, as increased contact with humans may endanger chimpanzees by contracting deadly diseases.
Chimpanzees are among the most intelligent of all animals. Animal psychologists have sought to use chimpanzees to study learning, communication behaviors, and intelligence. Researchers have found that chimpanzees can be taught to communicate with humans using sign language, and have had significant success in teaching chimpanzees and Bonobos sign language. Human speech is not within their natural capacities. However, both have been taught to use hundreds of symbols and hand signals.
Recent studies have revealed that chimpanzees learn from each other. Experiments that challenge them in problem solving have been used to study their intelligence. Their behaviors are mimicked and passed on to the next generation, creating a “chimp culture” in each community. These behaviors are passed down from chimpanzee to chimpanzee without any human interference or intervention. Jane van Lawick-Goodall, a famous English naturalist, conservationist, and author began patiently observing a band of chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1960. She was able to move with a band of chimpanzees, studying them ever closer as they grew more familiar with her. For months, she recorded many behaviors that other naturalists had not previously observed. When her observations and finds were published, scientific understanding of chimpanzees underwent an enormous transformation.
Among the many revolutionary discoveries Goodall made was that chimpanzees sometime eat meat and that they are not strict vegetarians as previously believed. Moreover, she noticed that they eat meat for periods, then return to a vegetarian diet for other periods. Also, they will sometimes engage in chimpanzee cannibalism, or they will eat meat when chance opportunities arise. Goodall also described the complex social order that exists within chimpanzee bands. She also described “wars” between different groups of chimpanzees. Other researchers have observed in recent years that chimpanzees engage in acts of violence against their own. Some researchers believe that these observations may offer clues to the development of warfare among humans. Goodall’s findings have enabled conservationists to better protect chimpanzees, which are threatened by poachers seeking “bush meat” or babies for sale to zoos or to pet collectors. After returning to England, she championed efforts to protect chimpanzees in the wild through movies, television, books, and with political advocacy.
Chimpanzees are considered an endangered species by conservation organizations like the World Conservation Union. They were originally found in 25 countries, but are extinct in four of those and close to extinction in others. They are threatened by poaching for the bush meat trade, deforestation, and traffickers for display and medical laboratories. All three subspecies and the Bonobos are listed on the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource (IUCN) as endangered. The western chimpanzee and the Nigerian chimpanzee are the most threatened.
- Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Achermann, Chimpanzees of the TAI Forest (Oxford University Press, 2000);
- Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Combe: Patterns of Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1986);
- Jane Goodall, My Life with the Chimpanzees (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1996);
- Vernon Reynolds, Chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest: Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation (Oxford University Press, 2005);
- Claire Robinson, Chimpanzees (Reed Educational and Professional Publishing, 1998);
- S. Savage-Rumbaugh, Ape Language: From Conditioned Response to Symbols (Columbia University Press, 1986);
- K. Termerlin, Lucy: Crowing Up Human, a Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist’s Family (Science & Behavior, 1975);
- F.D. Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (Harper, 2000);
- W. Wrangham, et al., eds., Chimpanzee Cultures (Harvard University Press, 1996);
- M. Yerkes, Chimpanzees: A Laboratory Colony (Yale University Press, 1943).