Geographical Range Central and western Africa
Habitat Rain forests, woodlands, savannahs
Scientific Name Pan troglodytes
Conservation Status Endangered

Tooling Around

More than any other ape, chimpanzees use tools. They use sticks to fish for insects, poking the twigs into the holes of ant or termite mounds and pulling them out, covered with wiggling food. Chimps use stones to crack open hard-shelled nuts or fruits. They also use leaves as sponges, either to soak up drinking water or to clean the body. And they use leafy twigs to keep away flies.

What's even more interesting: we now know that not all chimpanzee communities use the same tools, or use them in the same way. Every community passes on its own customs from generation to generation. This shows that chimps have unique cultures, just like people do.

Hanging Around and Knuckle-walking

What's one of the first things you notice about chimpanzees? Probably their arms. These apes have very long, powerful arms and long-fingered hands -- perfect for hanging around in trees. Chimps spend a lot of time in trees, where they do most of their feeding and nesting.

Chimps may travel through the trees, moving from branch to branch -- but only for short distances. They do most of their traveling on the ground. Their long arms come in useful here, too, because these apes usually walk on all fours. Like gorillas, chimps walk on the knuckles of their hands and the flat soles of their feet. They can walk on two legs for short distances.

When standing upright, adult chimps are about three to five feet tall. In the wild, females can weigh up to 110 pounds and males, up to 155 pounds. (In captivity, both males and females can weigh more.)

Black hair covers most of their body, though older chimps are prone to graying hair and baldness (just like us!). Chimps' face and the underside of their hands and feet have no hair. Their skin is colored pink when they're young, but darkens with age.

Gathering and Hunting

Chimpanzees are usually active from dawn to dusk, and they spend at least half of that time in a very important activity -- finding and eating food. They eat mostly fruit, but they're not picky: they also eat leaves, seeds, flowers, honey, insects, eggs, birds, and small mammals.

When it comes to feeding, it's usually every chimp for itself. Though several of the apes may gather in one area (for instance, around a large fruiting tree), each chimp finds its own food. There is one exception to the "no-share" policy, and that involves hunting.

Chimps usually hunt in groups, and only males hunt. Their favorite prey is red colobus monkeys, but they'll also hunt bushpigs, forest antelope, and other small mammals. After they catch their quarry, the successful hunters share their kill with other males, and sometimes with females.

Loving and Learning

A female chimp is ready to mate when she's about 13 years old. When a female is in estrus (in heat), she'll usually approach -- and mate with -- several males. Sometimes a high-ranking male will try to guard the female and prevent her from mating with other males.

The length of gestation (pregnancy) averages 230 days, or about 7 1/2 months. A baby chimp weighs about four pounds at birth. For the first few months of its life, the little one sticks close to mom, clinging to her underbelly when she's on the move. After about six months, and for the next several years, the young chimp hitches a ride on mom's back. Talk about cheap transportation!

The young chimp will nurse until the age of about four. But during these early years, the youngster is learning how to find its own food. The little ape spends many hours watching its mom select fruits and other foods, learning what is good to eat. The youngster also watches as adults use tools to get food -- sticks for grabbing termites, stones for cracking nuts. The young one learns by watching, and then practicing on its own.

Finally, a young female chimp learns how to be a mother (later in life) by watching her own mom raise her and her siblings.

Chimpanzee Politics

All chimps belong to communities, which can have as few as 15 or as many as 150 members. The members of a community come and go, traveling and feeding in smaller parties.

Within a community, chimps spend a lot of time in behavior that can only be described as political. Every community has a dominant male, but his power is not absolute. He depends on support from his allies, both male and female. (Some activities, like meat sharing and grooming, help to cement social bonds.) Meanwhile, less powerful males may be plotting to overthrow the leader. Power struggles, shifting alliances, and take-overs -- it's politics at its best!

Chimpanzees in Danger

At one time, more than one million chimpanzees lived in Africa. Today, perhaps only 150,000 survive, and they continue to be lost at an alarming rate. What's happened to these apes?

For one thing, they're losing their habitat. It's being destroyed to make farmland, to provide trees for the lumber industry, and to build roads. Another problem is that chimps are captured for the pet trade. It's estimated that for every baby chimp taken as a pet, ten other chimps are killed -- the mother and several relatives who die to protect the baby. Yet another problem is the ebola virus, which is killing huge numbers of chimps.

While habitat loss, capture, and ebola are continuing problems for chimps, an even bigger crisis has emerged in recent years. It's called the bushmeat trade. Chimps (and other mammals) are being killed for their meat at a rate faster than they can reproduce. In some cases, the hunters are poor people who need protein to survive. But more and more, the carcasses are being sold to cities, where bushmeat is bought as a "gourmet" food.

Conservation groups are working to solve the bushmeat crisis before it's too late. To learn more about what's being done to help chimps and other bushmeat victims, read about the work of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF).

What can you do to help chimps? You can help protect their habitat. Make sure that you, your family, and friends choose wisely when buying wood products. Don't buy items made from trees that were logged from chimps' habitat. Also, tell everyone you know to recycle their cell phones. Cell phones contain the mineral coltan, which can only be mined by destroying chimps' habitat. Your actions can make a difference!

Fun Facts

  • Chimpanzees communicate with each other through vocalizations (sounds), body language, and facial expressions. They have a large range of expressions, from the play face to the fear grin.
  • Chimps are our closest living relatives. In fact, we share 98.4% of our DNA with chimps.
  • Chimpanzees are seven times as strong as a man.
  • The chimpanzee is one of four "great ape" species. The others are the bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee), gorilla, and orangutan.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Pongidae