The great apes: who are they? What characteristics?

Great apes are not only distinguished by their cut but also by faculties intellectual advances. Close-up on our cousins ​​who can now only be counted on the fingers of one hand.

From the same family as the man

Belonging to the order of primates, the last five great apes in the world are divided into two families.

  • The hominids include the chimpanzee, gorilla, bonobo and orangutan. The members of this lineage – which also includes man – are characterized in particular by walking biped and a developed brain giving them strong social and learning skills;
  • The hylobatidae include gibbons. Smaller in size, these primates stand out for the length of their arms in relation to their body, their strictly lifestyle. arboreal, brachiation as the main means of transport and a social organization based on couples monogamous.

Three great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos) are found in Africa, the other two species (orangutans and gibbons) are native toAsia.

The developed brain of great apes

The great apes are distinguished from the “little ones” by a template most important. All devoid of tail, their morphology compensated for this absence by longer and more mobile limbs to facilitate movement. All have in common a vision sharp, long life expectancy and low reproduction rate. But it is above all by their faculties intellectual that great apes make a difference. A more developed and complex brain gives them strong capacities cognitive : ease of learning by trial and error, manufacture and use oftools, self-awareness, excellent memory immediate… The great apes are the closest cousins ​​of man, in particular the bonobos with whom we share 99.4% of our genetic code.

Focus on the last five great apes in the world

Known through the discovery of dozens of species fossils spaced between 24 and 10 million years ago, the great apes today number only five representatives. Portraits.

The gorilla

The gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) is the most massive of all apes. Measuring around 1.70 m, it can weigh 90 kg for females to 200 kg for males. The wingspan of its arms exceeds the length of the body, sometimes reaching 2.75 m. Behind a gruff appearance, hides a giant with a tender heart who lives in groups of 5 to 30 individuals dominated by an adult male. Originally fromAfrica (west and east), this vegetarian animal consumes leaves and roots. Essentially earthly, he walks on all fours, leaning on the joints of the three middle fingers. Longevity: 30 years.

The chimpanzee

The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) occupies African forests where it adopts an omnivorous diet, feeding on fruits, plants, honey, insects (ants and termites), small mammals and birds. Individual social, he lives in tribes that can bring together a hundred members who spend their time eating, resting and delous. The female transmits her knowledge to its young (making and using tools, making the nest, method of feeding and caring for plants …). The male chimpanzee measures 1.30 to 1.70 m and weighs 50 to 70 kg while the female displays a height of 1.30 m maximum for a weight of about 40 kg. Longevity: 40 to 50 years.

The bonobo

The bonobo (Pan paniscus) measures from 70 cm to 1 m for a weight of 45 kg (male) and 30 kg (female). The primate frequents the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it mainly consumes fruits to which it sometimes adds some insects and small vertebrates. The bonobo is known for its way of resolving conflicts through sexual activities which occupy a crucial place in its social organization. The clans, of around ten individuals, are led by females who make decisions in a rather peaceful climate. Longevity: 40 years.


The orangutan, native to Southeast Asia, includes two species: a first established in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and the other in Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus). More large arboreal mammal, the primate spends most of the time in trees. Its very long arms and four prehensile hands greatly facilitate its movements. Vegetarian, it mainly eats fruits, leaves, bark and some insects. Unlike chimpanzees and very gregarious gorillas, the orangutan shows itself rather solitary. The male is about 1.40 m tall and weighs 85 kg, and the female 1.10 m for a weight of 40 kg. Longevity: from 30 to 40 years.

The gibbon

The gibbon (Hylobates) lives in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand) where it uses its long arms to move from branch to branch. This primate arboreal very agile hardly ever descends to the ground and, in fact, hardly knows any natural predators. Of the nine species of gibbons, the siamang (Hylobates syndactylus) is the largest and the only one to have a large throat pouch located at the neck. This individual monogamous lives in a couple with three or four young and the dominance alternates between male and female. The gibbon measures 40 cm to 1 m and weighs 5 to 10 kg. Longevity: 35 years.

Great apes are threatened with extinction

All the great apes are in dangerextinction short term. The main cause is the destruction and the fragmentation of their habitat (cutting of exotic wood for the manufacture of furniture, mining, oil palm plantations…). Primates are also hunted for their meat or captured to feed the trafficking of babies sold as animals of company. Species living in Africa (gorillas in particular) have been decimated by epidemics such as Ebola, transmitted by humans. Great apes are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and also listed on the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Four great apes are particularly threatened: the eastern gorilla, the Grauer (or eastern plains) gorilla, the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan. Following a catastrophic decline in their population, our closest parents could thus disappear by 2050.