types of apes

Types of Apes From Chimpanzees to Orangutans

When we speak of diversity in the animal kingdom, it's hard to ignore the various types of apes. These species, with whom we share several characteristics and behaviors, continually surprise and enlighten us.

This article takes us to the jungles and rainforests to uncover the ape life's less familiar yet noteworthy facets. As we explore this list, may we all appreciate the intricate tapestry of extant species of apes.

Two Major Types of Apes

Apes, despite being part of the wider family of primates that includes monkeys and prosimians, distinctively lack a tail, exhibit larger brain-to-body size ratios, and possess more agile shoulder and arm joints that allow for sophisticated movement such as brachiation, making them stand apart from other primates.

Before learning about each ape, we should first talk about two major groups: the great apes and the lesser apes. These categories separate them with their size; the former is massive, while the latter is comparatively tiny and henceforth called lesser apes. The great apes also have human-like features and are more intelligent. (Humans, or Homo sapiens, are also great apes that belong to the genus homo.) 

Even though apes and monkeys are totally different species, monkeys are also divided into two groups: the New World monkeys and Old World monkeys. Monkeys in the former are native to the Americas, while those in the latter are native to Africa and Asia.

Additionally, geographic classifications are often used to group ape species:

  1. African apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, all originate from various regions in Africa. They are known for their advanced social structures and behaviors, many of which mirror human behavior.
  2. Asian great apes, such as orangutans, are native to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. These apes are distinctive for their largely solitary existence and their life amongst the treetops.
  3. Asian lesser apes, or gibbons and siamangs, are primarily found in Southeast Asia's tropical forests. Their agility amongst the treetops and unique vocal expressions are defining characteristics.

After expanding your knowledge about apes, you can head to our types of monkeys next.

The Great Apes 

1. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)

chimpanzee near rocks
Photo by Antonio Friedemann on Pexels

Fun Fact: Did you know that chimpanzees have a DNA similarity of around 98.7% with humans3? These great apes are more closely related to modern humans than other primate species. 

Chimpanzees live primarily in central and western Africa's lush rainforests and woodlands and exhibit advanced cognitive abilities. Their close evolutionary relationship with us means they can solve problems, use tools, and have a sense of self-awareness. For example, chimpanzees can fish for termites with a stick and crack nuts with rocks. 

However, it's not just about getting a meal. These activities challenge their problem-solving skills and provide an outlet for their innate curiosity.

Related Read: Chimpanzee Facts.

2. Bonobos (Pan paniscus)

bonobo
Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

Fun Fact: Did you know bonobos have a matriarchal society? They use social bonding and sexual activities to resolve conflicts and maintain group cohesion. Moreover, these great apes are the only non-human species that engage in sexual intercourse for communication1.

Bonobos, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee, live in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While they might seem similar to common chimpanzees, take a closer look. They are generally leaner with more elongated bodies, smaller heads, and less prominent brow ridges than chimpanzees.

3. Gorillas (Gorilla)

Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)
western lowland gorilla
Photo by Rennett Stowe on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original)

Despite their massive size, gorillas are peaceful, shy, and reserved. The genus gorilla comprises both the eastern and western gorilla species. Unfortunately, both are critically endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching, and disease.

Western gorillas have a brownish or grayish coat and auburn chest, typically with rounder skull shapes. The western variant is also the most widespread and numerous gorilla subspecies living in the lush rainforests of Central Africa. However, these great apes remain mysterious, for they prefer to live in thickly forested habitats that keep them away from human observation.

Don't let their size fool you. Researchers also observed their intelligence in the wild. In 2005, a female western gorilla used a stick to test the depth of a pool of water4.

Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri)

Fun Fact: Did you know the Eastern Gorilla is the largest gorilla subspecies? These massive apes can reach up to 6 feet tall when standing upright. With their muscular build and powerful arms, they can weigh up to a whopping 400 pounds.

The eastern gorilla, also known as Grauer's gorilla, lives in the lowland forests of the eastern and central Democratic Republic of Congo. Aside from the size difference, these great apes also have darker fur than their western cousins.

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)
mountain gorilla
Photo by Dylan Walters on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original)

You can find the mountain gorilla in the heart of the Virunga mountains and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. These great apes have long hair, formidable jaws, small noses, and a dense coat that helps them survive freezing temperatures. Moreover, this old-world monkey lives 7,200 to 14,100 feet above sea level, where it gets pretty chilly.

Related Read: Gorilla Facts.

4. Orangutans (Pongo)

Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)
bornean orangutan
Photo by Simon J. Tonge on CalPhotos licensed under CC BY 3.0 (Cropped from original)

Fun Fact: Did you know that orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling mammals on Earth? These creatures spend most of their lives high up in the rainforest canopy, rarely touching the forest floor.

The Bornean orangutan flaunts a striking coat of reddish-brown hair and a distinctively broad face with a prominent nose. Physically, they are characterized by long, powerful arms and strong grasping hands and feet, which help them easily maneuver through the dense jungles of Borneo.

They are more likely to descend from trees and spend time on the ground in multi-male groups. They also exhibit less social and vocal activity than their Sumatran counterparts.

Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii)
sumatran orangutan
Photo by Andrew Regan on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 3.0 (Cropped from original)

Fun Fact: Did you know that orangutans can travel up to 100 feet in a single swing? These incredible acrobats use their long arms and strong hands to navigate the dense rainforest.

Sumatran orangutans are recognizable by their lighter, more copper-colored coats and thinner, more elongated faces than their Bornean cousins. They showcase long, shaggy hair, large, rounded bodies, powerful, long arms, and shorter legs, all of which are adeptly adapted for their arboreal life in the Sumatran rainforests.

They often dwell higher in the canopy, possess a more frugivorous diet, and are more sociable, often seen in small social groups, particularly females with their youngsters. Sumatran males are also known to display long calls more frequently.

Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis)
tapanuli orangutan
Photo by Tim Laman on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original)

Fun Fact: Did you know that the Tapanuli orangutan is the newest great ape species2? In 2017, experts officially recognized it as a distinct species. With only 800 individuals in the wild, they are also the world's rarest apes. 

The Tapanuli orangutan lives in the rain-soaked highlands of South Tapanuli on Indonesia's Sumatra island. You can quickly identify these great apes through their distinctive, frizzy hair and a notably long beard. Unfortunately, all three subspecies of orangutans are critically endangered. Their population is declining due to habitat loss, illegal hunting, and conversion of forests to palm oil production.

Related Read: Orangutan Facts.

Fun fact: While apes eat a diverse range of foods, including fruits, leaves, insects, and occasionally meat, orangutans stand out for their distinct diet, relying heavily on fruit, especially figs, for over 60% of their nutritional intake.

The Lesser Apes

1. Siamang Gibbon (Symphalangus syndactylus)

siamang gibbon
Photo by CheongWeei Gan on iNaturalist licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original)

Fun Fact: Did you know that Siamang gibbons are the largest among the gibbon species? They can be twice as large, reaching up to 3.3 ft.

The siamang has deep black fur and a prominent throat pouch for amplifying calls. Siamangs also have a unique bonded membrane between their second and third toes. They live in the lush greenery of the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai rainforests, making their homes high on the treetops. Their long arms are about one and a half times their body length, enabling them to dart through the canopy.

2. Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock hoolock)

hoolock gibbon
Photo by Rejoice Gassah on iNaturalist licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original)

You can find the Hoolock gibbon in the lush forest canopies of Northeastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China. Moreover, they are the only apes native to India, dancing amid the trees with agility. 

These lesser apes exhibit a slim, athletic build with fur that varies from silvery-white in females to deep black in males. They also flaunt a distinctive white eyebrow stripe, while males boast white tufts of hair on their cheeks and white-colored testes.

Extinct Ape Species

Over the course of apes' evolutionary history, several species have become extinct, leaving vestiges of their existence in the fossil record. They're often termed 'prehistoric apes,' a term that encapsulates a number of now-extinct species known only from fossils. These extinct apes played a pivotal role in our understanding of primate and human evolution, bridging the gap between the past and the present species.

One of the most renowned of these extinct ape species is the Australopithecus, an ape-like creature from Africa. The discovery of the famous "Lucy" skeleton in 1974 shifted our understanding of primate evolutionary history.

Similarly, the Gigantopithecus, the largest known ape that ever lived, used to roam the jungles of India, Vietnam, and China. These extinct apes, among others, are critical to understanding our own species' evolutionary trajectory and the myriad paths nature has navigated through the process of evolution.

Conclusion: Types of Apes

In conclusion, apes, our distant relatives with which we share most of our DNA, teach us much about diversity and evolution. Their habitats also mirror our environmental challenges. So, let's be responsible stewards, always remembering to uphold the welfare of these creatures and their homes.

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1

Clay, Z., & Zuberbühler, K. (2012). Communication during sex among female bonobos: effects of dominance, solicitation and audience. Scientific Reports, 2(1).

2

Nater, A., Mattle-Greminger, M. P., Nurcahyo, A., Nowak, M. G., de Manuel, M., Desai, T., ... & Lameira, A. R. (2017). Morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence for a new orangutan species. Current Biology, 27(22), 3487-3498.

3

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.

4

Breuer, T., Ndoundou-Hockemba, M., & Fishlock, V. (2005). First observation of tool use in wild gorillas. PLoS biology, 3(11), e380.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Andrey Tikhonovskiy on Unsplash
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