Apes are hairy, long-armed animals without tails.
hey are intelligent creatures with large and complex brains. They belong to a group of mammals called primates. Human beings, monkeys (which are sometimes mistaken for apes), and a number of more primitive animals, such as lemurs, also are primates.
Of all existing animals, apes resemble human beings the most. The similarities between apes and human beings have led most scientists to believe that millions of years ago, apes and human beings shared a common ancestor. Some of the shared characteristics include highly developed nervous systems, excellent eyesight, broad flat chests, and flexible fingers and toes with nails instead of claws.
Although apes and human beings share many characteristics, there are significant differences. People are capable of more complicated tasks. They have larger, more complex brains. Human beings also take longer to develop, have less body hair, and longer life spans. But probably the most important differences are that people have the ability to communicate with spoken language and to stand upright and walk on two legs.
Characteristics of Apes
All apes are divided into two families, or groups, based chiefly on size. There are great apes and lesser apes. The great apes, which belong to the family Pongidae, include four species, or kinds, of apes: the gorilla , orangutan , chimpanzee , and bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. The largest of the great apes, and the largest primate, is the gorilla. A male can weigh about 600 pounds (272 kilograms) and stand more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. The lesser apes, which belong to the family Hylobatidae, include nine species of gibbons. Gibbons are the smallest apes. They usually weigh 10 to 20 pounds (4.5 to 9 kilograms) and stand about 2 feet (0.6 meter) tall.
The various species of apes share many of the same characteristics. Their lively faces are more or less naked with flat noses and jaws that are thrust forward. Because they have mobile facial muscles, apes are able to display a wide range of facial expressions. Their eyes, which are directed forward, are capable of full-color vision. Hairless external ears are positioned on the sides of their heads. The trunk is well muscled with arms longer than legs. The siamang gibbon is the ape with the longest arms. Its arms, which may be more than twice as long as its body, span a distance of about 5 feet (1.5 meters). Apes have long-fingered hands with flat nails and opposable thumbs. (Opposable thumbs are thumbs that can be placed against other fingers.) Hair, varying in color from black to shades of reddish brown, covers their bodies.
Apes live in a variety of habitats. Gorillas are forest animals, found in tropical Africa. One population lives in west central Africa. This is the western lowland gorilla. The eastern lowland gorilla lives about 600 miles (965 kilometers) away, in central Africa. Still another population inhabits mountains in east central Africa. This is the mountain gorilla. Orangutans are also forest animals. However, their habitats on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra distinguish them from other great apes—they are the only existing great apes of Asia. Chimpanzees are adaptable apes that make their home in Africa. They live in forests and in grasslands near wooded areas. Tropical forests in central Africa are home to the bonobos. Gibbons inhabit the airy heights of forests of Southeast Asia.
Apes are both land- and tree-dwellers. On land, apes typically move about on all fours with the knuckles of their front hands on the ground. Exceptions are the orangutan, which closes its hands into fists, and the gibbon, which walks with its long arms held high. Although all apes can climb trees, some are much more comfortable moving about high above the ground. The orangutan and gibbon seldom come down from their lofty habitats. Gorillas rarely climb trees.
Most apes are very social animals. In fact, they need to be around each other. When apes do not have contact with each other, they become depressed and dejected. Their sociability extends to their mode of parenting. Apes are dedicated parents that spend a lot of their time raising their offspring. Rather than have many offspring, apes produce a few young that are cared for by both male and female parents. Their care extends over several years until the young are able to take care of themselves.
The Life of Apes
Except for the solitary orangutan, apes live in groups. Some groups, like those of the gibbons, are small and consist of an adult pair and their young. A gorilla group may reach two dozen members. It includes a few adult males, some younger males, and females and their offspring. Chimpanzees live in groups of between 15 and 80 individuals. The largest groups, or communities, are formed by the bonobos. A single community can have close to 150 members.
Although the various groups may be large and noisy, apes are generally peaceful creatures. Apes sometimes do engage in threatening displays or aggressive behavior. But this happens when they are guarding their territories against intruders or when males compete with each other for status, or rank, within a group. Males with the highest status usually mate with the most females. Gibbons are an exception. The male mates with only one female, and it stays with that female for life.
Apes are active during the day hunting and foraging for food. Gorillas are strict vegetarians. This means they only eat plants. Other apes have a varied diet but feed mostly on plant matter. The fruit, roots, and leaves of plants and the bark of trees are consumed. Gibbons often eat birds’ eggs, insects, and spiders as well as plants. Chimpanzees and bonobos add small mammals to their plant diet. In their quest for food, apes—especially chimpanzees—will develop and use tools. The episodes of eating are broken up by naps and playtimes with offspring.
When apes are sexually mature, at about 7 years of age, they are able to mate. Although twins are sometimes born, generally only a single offspring is produced by the female. The offspring stays with its mother for three to six years. The young apes are sheltered by their family group as their elders prepare them for the tasks of their adult lives.
At night, apes retire to sleeping nests. Some, like the tree-dwelling orangutan, build their nests high above the ground by bending twigs and branches to form a springy platform in the trees. Other apes, such as the gorilla, gather leaves, grasses, and other plant material to make their ground nests comfortable.
Apes and Their Environment
Few animals threaten the lives of apes. Large cats, such as tigers and leopards, do hunt apes for food. But it is people who have seriously reduced the ape population. People have hunted apes for food. They have also captured and traded apes to stock zoos and for use in scientific research.
By far the greatest threat to apes is the loss of their habitats. Tropical forests and woodlands throughout the world, including those inhabited by apes, are being eliminated by human activity. Some are cut for lumber. Others are cleared to make room for agriculture or industries such as mining. As people have cleared land for development, apes have been pushed from their homes into lands that are poor habitats. The inferior lands cannot supply the apes with what they require to survive. Consequently, their numbers have dwindled.
Various methods are being used to protect the world’s ape population. In many countries, laws have been enacted that make hunting or trading apes illegal. No longer are apes taken from the wild to supply zoos and research centers. Instead, apes are bred in captive-breeding programs. This helps ensure that the various species of apes will not become extinct. In addition, many conservation groups are working hard to establish forest sanctuaries. In these places apes can be protected and their habitat preserved.