Great Apes

About Great Apes

Welcome to the extraordinary world of great apes! These remarkable creatures belong to the animal kingdom’s order Primates and the family Hominidae. Great apes, also known as hominids, are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. 

Renowned for their high intelligence, complex social structures, and striking physical characteristics, they captivate our fascination. Take a moment to explore their various species, diet, reproductive habits, lifespan, unique traits, and see how they are distinguished from the monkeys. Let’s embark on an enlightening journey to discover more about these majestic and intelligent beings that share our planet!

Types of Great Apes:

There are four recognized species of great apes.  Here is a quick look into each of these species:

Orangutan: Orangutans are large, solitary apes native to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. They have reddish-brown hair, long arms, and a gentle disposition. Orangutans are highly intelligent and known for their impressive climbing and tool-using abilities.

Gorilla: Gorillas are the largest primates and inhabit the forests of Central and Eastern Africa. They have a muscular build, with males (silverbacks) being much larger than females. Gorillas are herbivores and live in social groups led by a dominant male.

Chimpanzee: Chimpanzees are intelligent and highly adaptable apes found in the forests of Central and West Africa. They have long arms, opposable thumbs, and are known for their complex social behaviors, tool use, and problem-solving abilities.

Bonobo: Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees and inhabit the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They share many physical features with chimpanzees but have a more slender build. Bonobos are characterized by their peaceful and matriarchal social structure, as well as their strong social bonds and extensive sexual behaviors.

Each species possesses distinct physical features, habitats, and behaviors, making them fascinating subjects for study. These great apes exhibit remarkable cognitive abilities and are known for their advanced problem-solving skills, tool use, and emotional complexity.

What makes great apes unique?

Great apes possess several unique characteristics and traits that distinguish them from other animals. They have a high degree of intelligence, displaying advanced problem-solving skills, social learning, and the ability to use tools. 

Great apes also exhibit complex emotional behaviors, such as empathy, compassion, and the capacity for forming deep social bonds within their groups. Additionally, their ability to communicate through a combination of vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions is remarkable.

The great apes are extraordinary creatures that captivate us with their intelligence, social complexity, and remarkable behaviors. As we delve into the world of these majestic beings, we develop a deeper appreciation for their similarities to humans and the importance of conserving their habitats. 

By understanding and protecting the great apes, we not only preserve our own heritage but also contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and the delicate balance of our natural world. Let us continue to marvel at the wonders of great apes and work together to ensure their survival for generations to come.

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Types of Great Apes






1. What is the largest of the great apes?

The largest of the great apes is the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei). Within the Eastern Gorilla species, there are two subspecies: the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).

Among these, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla is generally larger in size, with adult males weighing between 300 to 400 pounds (136 to 181 kilograms) and occasionally reaching even higher weights. The Mountain Gorilla is somewhat smaller but still substantial in size.

It’s important to note that while the Eastern Gorilla is the largest living great ape, extinct species, such as Gigantopithecus, were even larger. Gigantopithecus was a massive ape that lived in parts of Asia and is considered the largest primate known to have existed, with estimated weights exceeding those of modern great apes.

2. What is the smallest of the great apes?

The smallest of the great apes is the Bonobo (Pan paniscus), sometimes referred to as the pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos are slightly smaller than their close relatives, the Common Chimpanzees. Adult male bonobos typically weigh between 70 to 83 pounds (32 to 38 kilograms), while adult females weigh around 60 to 66 pounds (27 to 30 kilograms). In comparison, adult male Common Chimpanzees can weigh between 88 to 143 pounds (40 to 65 kilograms).

Bonobos are known for their distinct social behaviors, often characterized by greater social cohesion and reduced aggression compared to Common Chimpanzees. They are native to the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

3. What do great apes eat?

Great apes have diverse diets, and their specific food choices can vary based on their species, habitat, and availability of resources. Here’s a general overview:

  1. Chimpanzees:
    • Diet: Chimpanzees are omnivores, consuming a wide range of foods. Their diet includes fruits, leaves, seeds, flowers, bark, insects, and occasionally, small mammals. They are known for using tools to extract termites from mounds or to crack open nuts.
  2. Gorillas:
    • Diet: Gorillas are primarily herbivores. They mainly eat fruits, leaves, stems, and shoots. While their diet is mostly plant-based, they also consume insects occasionally. The western lowland gorillas, in particular, may eat small vertebrates.
  3. Orangutans:
    • Diet: Orangutans are primarily frugivores, with fruits making up a significant part of their diet. They also eat leaves, bark, flowers, and insects. Their diet can vary seasonally based on fruit availability.
  4. Bonobos:
    • Diet: Similar to chimpanzees, bonobos are omnivores. They consume a variety of fruits, leaves, seeds, and invertebrates. They are known for their reliance on cooperation and social bonds within the group.
  5. Humans:
    • Diet: Humans, as a great ape species, are omnivores. Our diets include a wide range of foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy products. The specific diet can vary based on cultural, regional, and individual preferences.

It’s important to note that the availability of food resources in their natural habitats strongly influences the dietary habits of great apes. Additionally, captive individuals may have diets provided by caretakers to ensure nutritional balance.

4. How do great apes reproduce?

Great apes have complex reproductive behaviors and social structures. They generally have a slow reproductive rate, with long gestation periods. Orangutans have the longest inter-birth interval, typically around 7-9 years. 

Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos have shorter intervals, with births occurring every 4-6 years. Great apes exhibit strong bonds with their offspring, providing them with long periods of maternal care and protection.

5. How long do great apes live?

The lifespan of great apes varies among species. Orangutans can live up to 50 years in the wild, while gorillas typically live between 35 and 50 years. Chimpanzees and bonobos have a similar lifespan, ranging from 40 to 60 years. 

However, it’s important to note that these estimates can be influenced by factors such as habitat quality, availability of resources, and threats from humans.

6. What is the difference between great apes and monkeys?

Although monkeys and great apes are both primates, there are significant differences between the two groups. Monkeys generally have tails, while great apes lack tails. Great apes also possess larger brains in relation to their body size, have more complex social structures, and exhibit higher levels of cognitive abilities. 

Monkeys tend to be more arboreal, spending a significant amount of time in trees, while great apes can be both arboreal and terrestrial.

  • Burnie, David & Wilson, Don, Animal, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.
  • Hickman et al, Integrated Principle of Zoology, McGraw Hill, Boston.