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Chimpanzees

About Chimpanzees

So Like Us

Chimpanzees and humans differ by just over one percent of DNA. In fact biologically, chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. Some have proposed including chimpanzees (genus Pan) in the same genus as human beings (genus Homo) to recognise these similarities, calling them Homo troglodytes. Though this is controversial, it emphasizes how similar we really are.

Watch the video of human-chimpanzee analogies.

 

Take a look at just how chimpanzees are so like us:


Taxonomy & Genetics

 

Chimpanzees and humans belong to the animal order “primates”. Primates include the suborders strepsirhines (lemurs and lorises) and haplorhines (tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans).

Primates are characterized by many features, including:

  • Large brains, relative to body size
  • An increased reliance on stereoscopic vision (commonly known as depth perception)
  • Less reliance on smell (the dominant sensory system in most other mammals)
  • Most have opposable thumbs and flexible joints

 

Apes and humans belong to the superfamily hominoid, that share similar characteristics, such as the absence of a tail, dental features, even larger brains, and greater mobility in shoulders, elbows and wrist suited for different locomotion.

Within this superfamily, chimpanzees and humans share the most similar genetic makeup, sharing 98.6% of our genes.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reproduction

Chimpanzees become sexually mature between the ages of 10 and 13. Females usually reproduce every 5 years, but a mother is unlikely to raise more than 3 offspring to full maturity during her lifetime, due to a high rate of infant mortality. Gestation period (period of pregnancy) is approximately 8 months. These numbers and timelines are comparable to those for human reproduction.

 

Interestingly, when a female is in oestrus (sexually receptive) the skin around her rump swells considerably and becomes clear pink. Females show their first very small sexual swellings at age eight or nine, but are not sexually attractive to the older males until they reach age 10 or 11. There is usually a two-year period of adolescent sterility before the female finally conceives. Spacing between births, provided the previous infant lives, is about five years. At this age and as a rite of passage, almost every young chimp gets lost from their mother at some point during their exploration.

Watch the video.

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Childhood

Like us, chimps have a long childhood—five years of suckling and sleeping in their mothers' nests at night. Bonds formed between mother and offspring and between siblings during this intense period are likely to persist throughout life.

If a mother dies, the orphan may be unable to survive. He or she often shows signs of clinical depression, and feeding and play activities decline. Older siblings often adopt their orphaned brothers or sisters. Occasionally individuals adopt infants not related to them (alloparenting)—instances of true altruism.

There are particularly close parallels between chimpanzee infants and human children – both have an insatiable appetite for play, are extremely curious, learn through observation and imitation, need constant reassurance and attention, and finally, need affectionate physical contact for healthy development.

A long childhood is as important for chimps as it is for humans. A young chimp has much to learn, watching, imitating and practising the behaviour of others. This learning is the means by which certain actions are passed from one generation to the next—the beginnings of culture.

 

 

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Intelligence

The anatomy of the chimpanzee brain and central nervous system is startlingly similar to our own. It should not be surprising, then, that chimpanzees (along with gorillas and bonobos) are capable of intellectual performances once thought unique to humans. Wild chimps use sophisticated cooperation in hunting. They use tools for more purposes than any other being, save humans. And chimps show the beginning of even more sophisticated tool-making behaviour.

Chimpanzees are capable of reasoned thought, abstraction and have a concept of self. Chimps use reasoned thought when they process information and use their memory, for example when finding fruit according to what season it is. Chimps are capable of generalization and symbolic representation, as they are able to group symbols together, and some chimps have even learned how to use American Sign Language. Chimps also have a “concept of self”, which refers to an individual’s perception of their being in relation to others. An interesting test that is often used is to see if an animal recognizes themselves in mirrors – chimps can do this, while most other animals cannot!

Those who have worked closely with chimpanzees agree that they feel and express emotions such as sadness and happiness, fear and despair—and they know mental as well as physical pain.

 

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Communication

There are uncanny similarities in the nonverbal communication of chimps and humans—kissing, embracing, patting on the back, touching hands, tickling, swaggering, shaking the fist, brandishing sticks, hurling rocks. And these patterns appear in similar contexts as those in which they are seen in humans.

In captivity, chimpanzees can be taught human languages such as ASL (American Sign Language), learning 300 or more signs. They can also master many complex skills on computers.

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Emotions

Dr. Goodall discovered that chimpanzees displayed a wide range of complex emotions that were once thought to be uniquely human. For instance, chimpanzees clearly exhibit emotions such as joy, sadness, fear and despair. Chimps have also been found to possess an almost human-like enjoyment of physical contact, laughter, and community.

These emotions have been evidenced particularly in chimpanzees, moreso than other mammals, due to their facial expressions and their facial musculature that is so similar to ours.

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Significant Differences

Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees not only points to striking chimp-human similarities but also pinpoints differences. Aside from the obvious physical traits, perhaps the most significant difference is that chimpanzees do not have a spoken language. This is due to the fact that chimps do not have a vocal tract. This human development can be attributed to various human adaptations working in conjunction, including walking upright and learning to cook our food (leading to smaller jaws and larger brains).

Our intellect dwarfs that of even the most gifted chimpanzee. The fact that chimpanzees can learn from humans, to communicate using human languages such as American Sign Language or lexigrams, does not change this. Language is believed to have played a major role: humans can discuss things or events not present, share knowledge of the distant past, make plans for the distant future, while no other animals can.

Importantly however, Dr. Goodall reminds us:

 

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