At least 361 species of primates have been identified to this day, and new primates continue to be discovered. Basically, primates are split into two classes: the prosimians and the anthropoids. Great apes belong to the second group.
These largest primates are found in the tropical forests of Africa (gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo) and Asia (orang utan). As part of the family Hominidae, which also includes humans, we have a common ancestor. Humans diverged from the great apes around seven million years ago. The chimpanzee is our closest relative, sharing more than 98 percent of our DNA.
Like humans, great apes have opposable thumbs, an furless face, and no tail. They are known to knuckle walk but, like us, they can walk upright, for instance to get across obstacles or to intimidate an opponent. Great apes have a remarkable ability to learn and have a wide range of communication skills (vocalizations, postures and facial expressions). Like us they use tools which can require years of observation and practice to master. Unlike human, their arms are longer than their legs and their big toe is also opposable. African great apes live in two ecological niches: on the ground and in the trees.
Primates reproduce slowly. Among chimpanzees for instance, females reach their sexual maturity at around 10-12 years old, and give birth to one child every 5 to 6 years only, the mother devoting long years to her offspring. Offspring are dependent on their mum for long years, breast feeding up to 6 years old. They learn everything from their mothers and from the rest of the group: social rules, traditions, communication skills, tool use, hunt techniques, diet…
Chimpanzees have a life span similar to ours, up to 70 years old in captivity, 40 in the wild. Those characteristics that are similar to our own, are also their weakness. Due in part to their extended developmental period and our genetic proximity, great apes are threatened of extinction…
Some numbers (2013)
- Humans (Homo sapiens): 7,186,962,312
- Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla): 120,000
- Bonobos (Pan paniscus): 50,000-100,000
- Bonobos are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) : 100,000 – 150,000
GRASP estimate an annual loss around 2,972 great apes.
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