Chimpanzees can use tools to perform tasks such as extracting termites from their nests. This behavior reveals that these primates can learn from one another. While exploring these and other chimpanzee facts below, we will consider aspects of their biology, ecology, and socio-cognitive abilities.
These great apes share around 98.7% of their DNA with humans. Our genetic similarity has offered scientists information about our shared ancestry and insights into the traits and behaviors that have evolved in each lineage2.
About 6-7 million years ago, humans and chimpanzees split from a shared ancestor. Experts believe that this ancestor was a small, arboreal primate that inhabited Africa's forests. Over time, the planet's climate, habitat, and food availability changed.
This allowed the two species to evolve separately, resulting in Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Many chimp subspecies exist today, such as the Eastern and Western chimpanzees.
The scientific name of chimpanzees is Pan troglodytes, derived from Greek. The word "Pan" means "all," while "troglodytes" means "cave-dweller." Despite the name, these great apes don't live in caves but in various African ecosystems.
The term "chimpanzee" originates from the Chiluba people of Central Africa, who speak the Tshiluba language. This word means "mock man" or "imitation man," alluding to the similarities between chimpanzees and humans.
Indeed, both species exhibit comparable physical traits, behaviors, and cognitive abilities. They can use tools, communicate, and form complex social structures. Researchers who have observed these primates in the wild have noted their human-like qualities.
Chimpanzees communicate beyond vocalizations, incorporating facial expressions and gestures as well. Researchers have observed these intelligent creatures using over 60 distinct gestures to convey specific meanings4. These gestures are crucial in navigating complex social interactions, coordinating group activities, and maintaining the solid social bonds essential to their survival.
After decades of study, researchers have discovered that their vocalizations vary from grunts and hoots to screams and pants, each carrying a unique message or emotion. Meanwhile, facial expressions help them express fear, aggression, or submission.
Moreover, chimps use their hands, arms, and body posture to convey different information. For example, a chimp may clap its hands to attract attention, extend its arms to seek grooming or embrace a fellow chimp to reassure them. They also pass down some gestures through generations, indicating some culture among chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees inhabit 21 African countries, including Central and West Africa. They have adapted to diverse habitats, from Guinea's lush tropical rainforests to Tanzania's expansive savanna. Chimpanzees demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. The diverse landscapes offer opportunities for chimpanzees to forage, socialize, and establish their communities.
The chimpanzees living In tropical rainforests benefit from high rainfall, dense vegetation, and abundant fruit, leaves, and insects. They use their advanced climbing skills to find food and shelter. On the other hand, woodlands and savannas support more plants and animals, such as honey, nuts, and small mammals.
Chimpanzees primarily feed on fruits, comprising about half of their food intake. However, their diet also includes hefty portions of leaves, buds, and blossoms. Interestingly, insects like termites and ants give these apes essential protein to support their highly active lifestyle.
There are as many as 150 individual chimpanzees in a single community. These dynamic communities evolve as members form temporary subgroups known as "parties." Food availability, mating opportunities, and social alliances influence these formations.
A network of relationships within each community assigns each chimp individual roles and responsibilities. Through continuous social interactions, members forge partnerships, devise cooperative strategies, and foster peaceful coexistence.
The chimpanzee social organization follows a strict hierarchy, with an alpha male at the top. However, this alpha male might sometimes be the biggest or strongest in the group. He can secure his position through shrewd alliances with other males and displays of dominance.
As leader and protector, he enjoys mating privileges with the females. Still, the dominant male is in a precarious situation, for several ambitious rivals can challenge and depose him. Meanwhile, female chimpanzees also adhere to a hierarchy, following the status of their male relatives. Both male and female chimpanzees treat grooming rituals as essential activities. They use the time to build and maintain alliances, enhance their standing within the group, and ease tensions.
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Like a few animals, chimpanzee mating doesn't follow specific seasons. These clever primates reproduce year-round, which helps sustain a complex social structure.
However, though she mates throughout the year, a female chimpanzee only gives birth once every five years. After a gestation period of around eight months, the birth of a single infant demands the mother's undivided care and attention.
For instance, baby chimps rely heavily on their mothers for guidance, learning essential skills like finding food and navigating their environment. From birth, the tiny, 4-pound infant chimpanzees depend on their mothers for nourishment, protection, and guidance.
They observe and absorb crucial survival and social skills in their mother's arms, forming an unbreakable bond. As time passes, the young chimpanzees move from their mother's belly to her back. This gradual transition allows them to explore the world with growing confidence.
Depending on the environment, the average chimpanzee's lifespan varies. For example, Little Mamma was a captive female chimpanzee who lived for an estimated 76 to 82 years, while other captive chimps had a usual lifespan of 38 years.
On the other hand, a landmark study at Uganda's Kibale National Park found that wild chimpanzees can reach an average of 33 years.
Besides their playfulness, chimpanzees can solve problems. They can use tools to get food or resolve other challenges3. For example, they crack open nuts with stones or get insects from tree bark using sticks. Moreover, chimpanzees can modify their tools to fit the situation, such as stripping leaves from a twig to improve their ability to extract insects.
In particular, these great apes insert the stick into the termite nest and remove it, covered with their wriggling prey. Another ingenious technique involves using leaves as makeshift sponges to help them drink more water efficiently.
Born in 1965, the captive chimpanzee Washoe proved that chimpanzees could learn and use human language, including American Sign Language (ASL). Researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner trained her to use more than 350 distinct signs. After successful training, Washoe could understand complex concepts and communicate with humans.
Moreover, Washoe demonstrated an ability to transmit her linguistic skills to a younger chimp. After adopting a young chimp named Loulis, she taught him the signs she had learned without human help.
Over the past 50 years, chimpanzee populations have declined by an alarming 50%, resulting in the "endangered species" classification from the IUCN.
Habitat loss, hunting, and disease have shrunk chimp populations everywhere, including Central and West Africa. Chimpanzees lose their homes and food sources from human activities such as settlements, logging, and agriculture. Moreover, poachers hunt them for the bushmeat trade or the illegal exotic pet industry. Finally, diseases like Ebola, transmitted from humans, threaten their survival.
In response, governments worldwide have signed agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Through these combined efforts, the hope is to halt and eventually reverse the decline in chimpanzee populations, securing a brighter future for these marvelous primates.
Over the decades, humans have experimented on these great apes, locked them in cages, or taken them away from their social groups in the name of science and amusement. However, a growing public awareness of chimps' intelligence and emotional needs has led to more ethical treatment of animals in research labs and the entertainment industry1.
Moreover, many organizations and individuals have started advocating for the retirement of chimpanzees from these industries. They also push these great apes to experience life in their natural habitat. As a result, sanctuaries have emerged to house retired research and entertainment chimps. These facilities help chimpanzees recover from years of captivity in labs and harsh training for acting in movies or other entertainment programs.
We hope you enjoyed this list of fascinating chimpanzee facts!
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with C.
Ross, S. R., & Lukas, K. E. (2006). Use of space in a non-naturalistic environment by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 96(3-4), 143-152.
Prüfer, K., Munch, K., Hellmann, I., Akagi, K., Miller, J. R., Walenz, B., ... & Pääbo, S. (2012). The bonobo genome is compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes. Nature, 486(7404), 527-531.
Pruetz, J. D., & Bertolani, P. (2007). Savanna chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, hunt with tools. Current Biology, 17(5), 412-417.
Hobaiter, C., & Byrne, R. W. (2011). The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee. Animal Cognition, 14(5), 745-767.