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Great Apes

This week we’re covering the 5 different types of great apes!

Great Ape 1: Gorilla (Gorilla sp.)

Gorillas are closely related to humans, sharing around 98% of our DNA. There are 2 species of gorillas, the eastern and western gorilla. These are split into 4 subspecies. Gorillas are native to east central and equatorial west Africa, and the subspecies live in very different environments. Family groups have a harem structure, meaning groups are typically made up of 1 male, multiple females, and their offspring. However, mountain gorillas are known to support more than one adult male per group. Gorillas are herbivorous, eating mostly vegetation and some fruits. Mountain gorillas specifically do not eat many fruits, subsisting mostly on the low calorie vegetation and bamboo native to their montane habitat. 

Fun fact: Gorillas are about 10x stronger than the average adult human male.

Great Ape 2: Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)

Even more closely related to humans are chimpanzees, with roughly 99% of their DNA in common with ours. There is only 1 chimpanzee species, the common chimpanzee, but they are divided into 4 subspecies. The subspecies are divided by location, and they can be found across central Africa, to the north, east, and west of the Congo river. Chimpanzees are highly social and have a fission fusion social structure, which means they form very large groups that can divide into smaller bands for traveling and foraging, especially when food availability is low. They are patriarchal, with very structured groups. While chimpanzees are known to occasionally  consume meat and insects (they even hunt down smaller mammals, including monkeys), their diet mainly consists of fruit and they are considered omnivorous frugivores. 

Fun fact: According to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than to gorillas!

Great Ape 3: Orangutan (Pongo sp.)

Orangutans are the only non-human great ape native to Asia. Their name translates to “person of the forest”, and they share about 97% DNA with people. Orangutans are split into 3 species: Bornean (which has 3 subspecies), Sumatran, and Tapanui (which was more recently discovered). All three species are found only in Indonesia, with the Bornean orangutan located on the island of Borneo, and the Sumatran and Tapanui on the island of Sumatra. Orangutans have the simplest social structure of all great apes, called a noyau structure. They are semi-solitary, meeting only for mating and occasionally foraging in the same trees. Infants stay with their mothers for approximately eight years, after which they become solitary. Like chimpanzees, orangutans are considered frugivores, however, they do not hunt and consume meat like chimps.

Fun fact: orangutans have the longest childhood of any land mammal besides humans!

Great Ape 4: Bonobo (Pan paniscus)

Previously known as the pygmy chimpanzee, bonobos, and humans share about 99% of their DNA. Common chimpanzees and bonobos look very similar, but bonobos are a distinct species and can be identified by their slender build and light-colored lips. They are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, south of the Congo river, and have zero subspecies. While bonobos and chimpanzees share a fission-fusion social structure, bonobo societies are matriarchal, meaning the females lead the group. They are considered omnivorous frugivores, with fruit making up about 57% of their diet. Like chimpanzees, they will occasionally consume meat, including small primates, but do not actively hunt them.

Great Ape 5: Human (Homo sapiens)

Homo sapiens, a name translating to “wise man”, is currently the only surviving human species. There are 0 subspecies of humans. We diverged from Homo erectus, the most closely related human species, about 500,000 years ago, and from the other great apes between 5 and 7 million years ago. Although humans originated on the continent of Africa, we have done some major dispersing and can now be found worldwide. We are highly social primates and show an extraordinary variety of complex social structures and mating systems, ranging from monogamy to polyandry. Unlike the other great apes, humans are true omnivores, with skulls built to process many different types of food matter. We also have evolved to walk bipedally, allowing for better support for our heavy brains and freeing up our hands for tool usage.

Fun fact: humans are the only species of great ape that is not endangered.

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