Great Apes: A Closer Look at Our Primate Relatives


Great apes, our close primate ancestors, have a plethora of similarities with humans. In this essay, we dig into some remarkable parts of their lives, behaviors, and distinctive qualities. From their intricate social structures to their ability to use tools, great apes demonstrate exceptional intelligence and cognitive capacities. Furthermore, their close genetic link to humans makes them great subjects for researching evolutionary biology and comprehending our own species’ origins.

1. Habitat and distribution

Great apes are mostly found in tropical rainforests and woodlands in Africa and Southeast Asia. They exhibit a wide geographic distribution, with species like chimpanzees and bonobos occupying the woods of Central and West Africa, while orangutans are found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. These broad habitats and distributions allow researchers to investigate the adaptability and behavior of great apes in different contexts. Additionally, the different habitats help highlight the necessity of conservation efforts to maintain these endangered species and their unique ecosystems.

2. The social structure of great apes

Great apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas, live in communities led by dominant individuals. Within these groupings, there is a hierarchical structure, with dominant males having more access to resources and breeding chances. Female great apes also play crucial roles in establishing social connections and rearing offspring. In addition to their social structure, great apes also possess extensive communication networks. They employ a combination of vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions to convey information and preserve social cohesion among their communities. These communication systems allow them to coordinate tasks such as hunting and protecting against predators, as well as create and sustain social relationships.

3. Blood Types Unveiled

Great apes and humans not only share a genetic relationship but also have the same blood types: A, B, AB, and O. These blood kinds emerged approximately 20 million years ago, joining humans and Old World monkeys. In theory, blood transfusions among humans and great apes are achievable, given matching blood types. However, practical limits caused by species differences make this impossible.

4. Bonobos and the common cold

Bonobos, famed for their loving temperament, are surprisingly susceptible to common colds. Keepers observe them coughing and sniffling, forcing restrictions on their outdoor activity in colder temperatures. This sensitivity extends to the danger of catching infections from humans. Bonobos possess a high degree of genetic similarity with humans, which makes them susceptible to many of the same diseases. This suggests that there is a chance for bonobos to get illnesses from humans, including the common cold. However, efforts are made to restrict their exposure and preserve their health.

Great Apes: A Closer Look at Our Primate Relatives

5. The Unspoken Truth: Why Great Apes Can’t Speak

Contrary to the cinematic image in movies like “Planet of the Apes,” great apes cannot speak. Their higher larynx limits the room for vocalization, similar to human infants before developing language skills. Despite this constraint, great apes demonstrate outstanding communication ability, employing sign language to transmit their thoughts. In fact, some great apes have been able to learn hundreds of signs and engage in intricate conversations with people. This illustrates the incredible intelligence and flexibility of these animals, despite not having the ability to speak in the same manner that people do.

6. Communication Beyond Speech

Brain scans reveal a rudimentary speech center in big apes, allowing them to interpret human sign language. Some individuals can employ over a thousand signals, inventing new words to describe items or events. Additionally, they display a tendency for mimicking, including the ability to acquire and employ profane words. This ability to grasp and employ sign language highlights the cognitive powers of great apes and their aptitude for abstract reasoning. It also implies that their communication skills extend beyond basic gestures, demonstrating a better comprehension of language structure and syntax. Furthermore, the fact that some individuals can even learn and employ swear words displays their ability to grasp complicated social dynamics and modify their communication style accordingly.

7. Entertainment Preferences: Great Apes Love TV

Studies at the Wilhelma Zoo demonstrate that big apes, notably bonobos, love watching TV films. The apes have unique emotions, displaying fascination with documentaries about other animals while loathing the sight of the zoo vet on screen. This shows that great apes not only have the cognitive ability to grasp visual information but also exhibit preferences and opinions. It is exciting to contemplate how their emotions toward specific information may mimic our own, demonstrating the shared emotional responses and engagement with storytelling that transcends species.

8. The Dark Side: Great Apes as Victims

Tragically, the human-like appearance of great apes has led to cases of cruelty, including sexual exploitation. Some female orangutans have difficult lives as they are treated as sex slaves in questionable businesses. These incidents of mistreatment underline the critical need for stronger protection and advocacy for great apes, since they deserve to live in situations that prioritize their well-being and respect their natural rights. Efforts should be made to increase awareness about these issues and impose tougher restrictions to prevent further exploitation of these clever and emotionally complex individuals.

Great Apes: A Closer Look at Our Primate Relatives

9. Perils of Moats

Primates face a unique challenge: they cannot swim. Zoos must carefully assess the design of cages, as water-filled moats could pose a drowning risk. The Wilhelma Zoo, for instance, incorporates a moat with safety precautions to adapt to the great apes’ non-swimming nature. The safety precautions include barricades and shallow sections to prevent accidental drowning.

10. Family Planning: The Pill for Gorillas

In captive environments, female gorillas are carefully transported between zoos to minimize incestuous breeding. Young female gorillas at the Wilhelma Zoo are put on birth control tablets to observe parental behaviors in other females before having babies of their own. This method helps to maintain genetic variety and minimize inbreeding among the gorilla population. Additionally, it allows researchers to investigate the social dynamics and maternal instincts of gorillas without the added stress of rearing kids.

11. The Allure of Cheek Pads

Dominant male orangutans develop cheek pads, a visible indicator of hierarchy, attracting females for mating. A funny occurrence at Wilhelma Zoo proved that a zookeeper played an important role as the dominant male, altering the orangutan’s cheek pad development. The zookeeper often interacted with the orangutans, replicating their dominating characteristics and creating a bond with them. As a result, the orangutans began to develop more noticeable cheek pads, suggesting their perceived authority within the group. This unexpected conclusion underscores the effect of social interactions on physical traits in monkeys.

12. Taxonomic Conundrum

The classification of big apes, including humans, into different species like Pan and Homo has caused disagreement among scientists. While others call for a more inclusive classification because of the apparent parallels, the current taxonomic distinction maintains. This taxonomic issue highlights the ongoing challenge of establishing species boundaries based on genetic, anatomical, and behavioral traits. It also raises doubts regarding the evolutionary links and shared ancestry of great apes and humans. Ultimately, future research and breakthroughs in genetic analysis may shed more light on this difficult subject.

13. Diet and foraging behavior

Great apes have different diets that vary depending on their species and location. For example, chimpanzees are omnivorous, ingesting a combination of fruits, leaves, insects, and even meat. Orangutans, on the other hand, have a largely frugivorous diet, eating mainly fruits and leaves. This variation in diet and foraging behavior across great apes demonstrates their capacity to adapt to diverse settings and food availability. Additionally, the variance in diet also contributes to disparities in their physical traits and social habits.

14. Reproduction and life cycle

Great apes have relatively extended life spans and moderate reproduction rates. Females have a lengthy gestation period, and kids require extensive periods of parental care. Sexual maturity is reached at varied times depending on the species, with some female great apes not reproducing until their late teens or early twenties. This extended period of parental care and delayed reproduction is believed to be linked to the complex social systems observed in big apes. These social structures, which typically contain sophisticated hierarchies and alliances, require individuals to invest significant time and energy in sustaining relationships and managing social dynamics. Consequently, the delayed reproductive age permits young apes to gain essential skills and information from their elders before becoming parents themselves.

Great Apes: A Closer Look at Our Primate Relatives

15. Conservation status of great apes

Great apes are designated as endangered or severely endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They face several hazards, including habitat degradation owing to deforestation, illicit poaching, and the pet trade. Conservation organizations and governments are attempting to safeguard great apes and their habitats through measures such as protected areas and anti-poaching activities. These efforts try to limit the impact of human activities and ensure the survival of these unique creatures in their natural environments. However, despite these conservation efforts, great apes continue to face enormous obstacles, and their future remains uncertain.


Great apes continue to captivate us with their similarities and contrasts. Understanding these primates not only sheds light on our shared evolutionary history but also underlines the need for conservation efforts to safeguard these wonderful individuals. Conservation activities such as protected areas and anti-poaching initiatives have played a significant part in minimizing the challenges faced by great apes. However, issues including habitat loss, illegal wildlife trading, and infections still pose substantial threats to their existence. It is vital that we continue to support and expand conservation initiatives to ensure a hopeful future for these wonderful species. .

Read Also: An Ode to Lobsters: Exploring the amazing specie


Q1: Can great apes donate blood to humans?

A1: In theory, great apes could donate blood to humans and vice versa if they share the same blood type. However, practical challenges due to species differences make this unlikely.

Q2: Why can’t great apes speak?

A2: Great apes have a higher larynx, limiting the space for vocalization. Their larynx muscles and vocal chords also lack the necessary coordination for speech.

Q3: Do great apes enjoy watching TV?

A3: Yes, studies show that great apes, especially bonobos, exhibit interest in TV films, particularly those featuring documentaries about other animals.

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