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The Chimpanzee: A Creature That We Continually Underestimate - Yellow Magpie

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Published on April 1st, 2010 | by Yellow Magpie


The Chimpanzee: A Creature That We Continually Underestimate

Two big searching eyes confront an interested viewer from the other side of a half-reflective glass. A black hand slowly raises itself to greet the onlooker. In this union resides a strange meeting of not too dissimilar minds. It is a scene that is repeated across the world in zoos and wildlife parks.

An eerie feeling of the familiar, of kindred souls connecting with one another. Human and our closest kin, the chimpanzee.

Chimpanzee And Baby Picture

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are said to be our closest living relatives. Those large brown, inchoate eyes and knowing intelligence seem to subtly indicate that there is much more to chimps than meets the eye. Whenever chimpanzees are talked about, a discussion about human beings is sure to follow. The two species are so closely related,  sharing 98.9% genetic material, that it is not too difficult to see why.

Massive Muscles And Keen Intelligence

Chimps are an unusual thing in nature, a rare mix of brawn and brain. In terms of raw strength, chimps are five times stronger than humans. They have the ability to use tools, to use language, and to learn quickly. Like dolphins, magpies, elephants and humans, chimpanzees can recognise themselves in a mirror.

They also use gestures and language to communicate with one another. Some experts have found that chimps use sounds for objects much in the same way that we arbitrarily use words.

Humans, through anthropomorphism, tend to project their own fantasies or myths onto animals. Unfortunately, chimps have fared no differently and have often been victim to human insecurity. Chimpanzees are still held to be mimics, an animal which clowns human behaviour in zoos.  A poor man’s very distant relative.

Chimpanzee Mother And Baby

Ape Myth Debunked

An experiment  in the 1950s designed to show that chimps were mere mimics completely backfired on the experimenters. The study involved a young chimp and human infant of the same age. Researchers would note the interaction between the two and they hoped to demonstrate that the young chimp was merely aping the behaviour of the human infant.

However, the researchers observed, contrary to their expectations, that it was the infant human which mimicked the young chimp and not vice versa. Concern over the welfare of the child’s development meant the experiment was quickly halted.

Young Chimpanzees At Play Photo By Delphine Bruyere

Human Mimics

It is now known that humans are the mimics not chimps. Conversely, it is mimicry that has resulted in the success of humans. The ability to copy other people’s actions has lead to our success as a species. Whereas humans are happily socially obedient, chimps on the other hand, are far more likely to do their own thing rather than copying social conventions.

While chimps do learn from one another they are not as slavish in their devotion to other people’s thoughts and actions as we are and this is probably the critical difference between the two species.

Chimp Culture

There are several different ‘chimp cultures’ that have been identified by scientists. Some use twigs to catch insects and rocks to crack open nuts. While some groups of chimps swallow folded leafs to remove parasites from their oesophageal linings as a form of medicine. Each of these specific actions is unique to each particular ‘culture’.

Like humans, chimps are emotionally expressive creatures and appear to laugh and smile as they go about their lives. They also have incredible memories. Tests conducted by Japanese scientists show that chimpanzee’s short term memory, especially young chimps, is far better than even college graduates’ memories.

Oliver The Bipedal Chimp

One of the key discernible differences between humans and chimpanzees is bipedalism, or the ability to walk on two legs instead of all-fours. However, in the 1960s a bipedal chimp, called Oliver, caused people to rethink their preconceptions about chimpanzees.

In fact, some even went as far as to suggest that Oliver was a human/chimpanzee hybrid. Others touted the idea that he was the ‘Missing Link’. Modern genetic DNA analysis has shown that Oliver is in fact a chimpanzee. However, he is far from being a common chimp. There are crucial differences in his genetic make-up that differentiates him from other chimpanzees. As a result of this, some people have suggested that he is a member of a rare or lost species of chimpanzee.

Common Chimps Rare Humans

Chimpanzees were once quite common, much more so than humans were. There are much more genetically diverse than humans which is indicative of being a commonplace species. By default, this means that humans were once quite rare.

However, this trend has since been reversed and now there are estimated to be only 100,000 chimpanzees left in the wild.

Human Obsession

What stokes our burning fascination with chimps cannot be fully answered. A mere suggestion would be that because chimps and humans are next of kin, a natural affinity exists. As our nearest living family relative, chimpanzees are perhaps in the best position to tell us who we really are.

Chimpanzee Photo By Aaron Logan

As the onlooker makes contact across the glass barrier something is stirred. Primordial and tangible. This creature that moves us looks quite human-like and yet it is not human. This animal that somehow seems to be something far greater. Our attention is rapt and the mystery and obsession deepened. The next generation goes forth as curious as the last. A fascination that remains unanswered.

Vital Statistics

  • Male chimpanzees can grow up to 1.2 metres (4 feet) in height.
  • Chimpanzees can weigh up to 70 kg (154 lbs).
  • They live as long as 60 to 70 years in captivity. However, in the wild they usually live up to 35 years of age.
  • Apart from captive chimps, wild chimpanzees are found in Western and Central Africa.

Further Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Bonobo: Our Most Human Primate Cousin to find about Chimpanzees social brothers.

Through a Window is an excellent read by a world-recognised chimpanzee expert, Jane Goodall. Full of fascinating insights, it details the impact that captivity has on the species and the dangers that man presents.

For those who prefer to be visually stimulated, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees is a DVD that has some wonderful scenes and great information.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access Through a Window and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain Through a Window and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees.

For Germany: Through a Window and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees.

For France: Through a Window and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees.


About the Author

5 Responses to The Chimpanzee: A Creature That We Continually Underestimate

  1. Pingback: About The Dolphin: Our Love Affair With Our Favourite Cetacean

  2. Pingback: The Bonobo: Our Most Human Primate Cousin

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  4. Jessica Speart says:

    You mention an experiment from the 1950s in which a human infant mimicked a young chimpanzee. Can you tell me where I might find more information on this? Possibly the institute where the experiment was done or a researcher’s name?
    Thanks for any help!

  5. Yellow Magpie says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for your comment. We don’t have the information to hand right now.

    However, we will look it up and get back to you as soon as possible.

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