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The chimpanzee (or "chimp") is one of two species of great apes; Pan
troglodytes (the common chimpanzee) and Pan paniscus (the Bonobo, formerly
called pygmy chimpanzee). Biologists believe that chimpanzees are our
closest evolutionary relatives; they branched off from our latest common
ancestor as recently as 4 to 7 million years ago, and we share 98-99.4% of
our DNA with them, which prompted Jared Diamond to use the term "the third
chimpanzee" for our own species. Some believe that assigning chimpanzees to
a different genus or even family than humans, a taxonomic division that goes
back to Linnaeus and that he later regretted, is not justified on biological
grounds, and in fact amounts to an instance of anthropocentrism.
Pan paniscus was not recognized as an independent species until quite
recently, and in common language the designation "chimpanzee" often applies
to both apes. Primatologists prefer to reserve the name "chimpanzee" for Pan
troglodytes. Anatomical differences between the two species are slight, but
in sexual and social behaviour there are some marked distinctions. For
example, P. troglodytes has a troop hunting culture based on beta males led
by a relatively weak alpha, an omnivorous diet, and a complex culture with
P. paniscus chimps, on the other hand, are notoriously individualistic and
sexually promiscuous. Several subspecies of chimpanzees have been
recognized, but there is no agreement among biologists as to their classification.
Chimpanzees are found in the tropical forests and wet savannahs of Western
and Central Africa. They used to inhabit most of this region, but their
habitat has been dramatically reduced in recent years.
Adult chimpanzees can measure up to 130 cm (females) or 160 cm (males), and
adults weigh between 40 and 70 kg, but are much stronger than humans. Their
body is covered by a coarse dark brown fur, except for the face, fingers,
toes, palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Both their thumbs and their
big toes are opposable, allowing a precision grip. The gestation period is 8
months. Infants are weaned when they are about 3 years old, but usually
mantain a close relationship with their mother for several years more.
Puberty is reached at the age of 8-10, and their lifespan in captivity is
about 50 years.
Chimpanzees live in troops, hierarchial groups that range from about 20 to
more than 100 members, consisting of several males, females and juveniles.
However, most of the time they travel around in small parties of just a few
individuals. They are both arboreal and terrestrial, spending equal time in
the trees and on the ground. Their habitual gait is quadrupedial, using the
soles of their feet and resting on their knuckles, but they can walk upright
for a short distance.
Their diet is mainly vegetarian (fruit, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers...),
supplemented by insects and small prey; there are instances of hunting. In
some cases--such as killing leopard cubs--this hunting seems to be primarily
a protective effort by the chimpanzees, rather than being motivated by
hunger. However, chimpanzees sometimes band together and hunt rhesus monkeys
for meat; this shows that they are capable of group hunting like humans, and
have a taste for flesh. Isolated cases of cannibalism have been documented.