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The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) also known as the common chimpanzee, robust chimpanzee, or simply “chimp”, is a species of great ape native to the forests and savannahs of tropical Africa. It has four confirmed subspecies. The chimpanzee and the closely related bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee) are classified in the genus Pan.

Subspecies

The four subspecies of the common chimpanzee that have been recognized include;

·         Central chimpanzee; found in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo.

·         Western chimpanzee; found in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

·         Eastern chimpanzee; found in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia

·         Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee; found in Nigeria and Cameroon.

·         Southeastern chimpanzee; found in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Appearance and physiology

A common chimpanzee adult male weigh between 40–60 kg with females weighing between 27–50 kg. The arms of a chimp are longer than its legs, and can reach below the knees. The hands have long fingers with short thumbs and flat fingernails whereas the feet are adapted for grasping. It has forward-facing eyes, a small nose, rounded non-lobed ears, a long mobile upper lip and the adult males having sharp canine teeth.

Chimpanzee bodies are covered by coarse hair, except for the face, fingers, toes, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Chimps lose more hair as they age, and develop bald spots. The hair of a chimp is typically black but can be brown. As they get older, white or grey patches may appear, particularly on the chin and lower region.

Ecology

The common chimpanzee is a highly adaptable species. It lives in a variety of habitats, including dry savanna evergreen rainforest, swamp forest and dry woodland savanna mosaic. The chimpanzee makes a night nest in a tree in a new location every night with every chimpanzee in a separate nest other than infants or juvenile chimpanzees, which sleep with their mothers.

Hunting

Chimpanzees hunt where the forest canopy is interrupted or irregular, which allows them to easily corner the monkeys when chasing them in the appropriate direction. Chimps may also hunt as a coordinated team, so that they can corner their prey even in a continuous canopy. Male chimps hunt more than females. When caught and killed, the meal is distributed to all hunting party members and even bystanders.

Diet

The chimpanzee is an omnivorous animal. It prefers fruit above all other food items but also eats leaves, leaf buds, seeds, blossoms, stems, pith, bark and resin. While the common chimpanzee is mostly herbivorous, it does eat honey, soil, insects, birds and their eggs, and small to medium-sized mammals, including other primates. 

However, in all cases, the majority of their diet consists of fruits, leaves, roots, and other plant matter. Female chimpanzees appear to consume much less animal flesh than males, according to several studies.

Mating and parenting

Chimpanzees mate throughout the year and adulthood chimpanzee males can have their first child around 15 years old while the female have their first child between 13 and 14 years old. The number of females in oestrus varies seasonally in a group. During oestrus, females mate with several males in their community. A community’s dominant males sometimes restrict reproductive access to females whereby females sometimes leave their community and mate with males from neighboring communities.

The chimpanzee has a gestation period of eight months and care for the young is mostly provided by their mothers. The survival and emotional health of the young is dependent on maternal care. For their first 30 days, infants cling to their mother’s bellies. Mothers provide their young with food, warmth, protection and teach them certain skills. A baby chimpanzee is born with a cute pink face and white hair on their backside that disappears with age. However, baby chimps are helpless whereby their grasping reflex is not strong enough to support them for more than a few seconds.

When they reach five to six months, infants ride on their mothers’ backs and remain in continual contact for the rest of their first year. When they reach two years of age, they are able to move and sit independently. Chimpanzees are weaned when they are between 3.5 and 4.5 years old and by three years, infants move farther away from their mothers whereby infancy ends between 4 to 6 years. The juvenile period for chimps lasts from their sixth to ninth years. Adolescent females move between groups and are supported by their mothers in agonistic encounters while adolescent males spend time with adult males in social activities like hunting and boundary patrolling.

Mortality

The average lifespan of a chimpanzee is usually less than 15 years. Captive chimps live longer with median lifespans of 31.7 years for males and 38.7 years for females.

Leopards are recorded to have preyed on chimpanzees in some areas though chimps may react to a leopard’s presence with loud vocalizing, branch shaking and throwing objects.

Tool use

Nearly all chimpanzee populations have been recorded using tools. They modify sticks, rocks, grass, and leaves and use them when foraging for honey, termites, ants, nuts, and water. Despite the lack of complexity, forethought and skill are apparent in making these tools. Chimps also use leaves as sponges or spoons to drink water.

Group structure

Common chimpanzees live in communities that typically range from 20 to more than 150 members but spend most of their time travelling in small groups consisting of a few individuals who may consist of any combination of age and sex classes but males and females sometimes travel alone.

At the core of social structures are males which roam around, protect group members and search for food. Males remain in their natal communities while females generally emigrate at adolescence. Males in a community are more likely to be related to one another than females are to each other.

Low-ranking males commonly switch sides in disputes between more dominant individuals. Low-ranking males benefit from an unstable hierarchy and have increased sexual opportunities. In addition, conflicts between dominant males cause them to focus on each other rather than the lower-ranking males.

Communication

Chimpanzees use facial expressions, postures and sounds to communicate with each other. Chimps have expressive faces which are important in close-up communications. When frightened, a “full closed grin” causes nearby individuals to be fearful as well. Chimps may also express themselves with the “pout” which is made in distress, the “sneer” which is made when threatening or fearful and “compressed-lips face” which is a type of display. While travelling, chimps keep in contact by beating their hands and feet against the trunks of large trees, an act known as “drumming”. They also do this when encountering individuals from other communities.

Bonobo vs chimpanzee

Chimpanzees represent one of our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our genetic DNA. Evolutionary biologists believe that humans, chimps and bonobos shared a common ancestor around 7 million years ago.

Both chimps and bonobos are found in sub-Saharan Africa and it was once thought that chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan paniscus) were a single species but they are now recognised as two distinct species.

Though distributed across Equatorial Africa within the Congo River region chimpanzees are found north of the river and are split into 4 sub-species.  Bonobos are restricted to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They live south of the Congo River, and have not been split into any sub-species.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How long do chimpanzees live?

Chimpanzee lifespan in the wild is harder to gauge, but a recent study indicates that the average life span of a chimpanzee is around 38 to 40 years. In captivity a female chimpanzee can live up to 39 years while the male lives up to 32 years old.

What do chimpanzees eat?

Chimpanzees are omnivorous, but eat fruit more than anything else. Most of a chimpanzee’s diet comes from our bits of plants (seeds, leaves, roots, resin etc) but they will also eat insects, honey, birds and bird eggs, mammals and even soil.

Where do Chimpanzees live?

As a highly adaptable species, chimpanzees inhabit a range of habitats, including tropical rainforest, montane rainforests, swap forests, less densely vegetated forest-savannah mosaics and even dry savannah.

Where can you find Chimpanzees in Uganda?

In Uganda you can track chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park. We also have chimps in Ngamba Island Sanctuary which is a home of orphaned chimpanzees.

How strong are chimps?

Chimpanzees are enormously strong, estimated to be around four times stronger than a human of a similar size. They can reach speeds of 25mph (40kph) when running. Their arms are designed to swing them through the trees and they have a much higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which seems to be what gives chimpanzees their extraordinary strength.

Do chimpanzees live in groups?

The chimpanzees live in groups which range in size from 15 to 150 members. Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion societies, meaning that the size and composition of their social groups changes over time. They spend the majority of their time in small temporary groups of just a few individuals known as ‘parties’ but also associate with a wider group known as a ‘community’.

Can chimpanzees use tools?

Chimpanzees are one of the few animals that are known to use tools. This includes the use of sticks to retrieve termites from their mounds, stones to open up appetizing nut contents, and leaf-sponges to soak up drinking water.

Can chimpanzees communicate?

Chimpanzees make around 30 different vocalizations. The most common and loudest is the pant-hoot, a long-distance call used for a variety of social reasons, but particularly for keeping in touch with fellow troop members.

When do chimps reproduce?

The chimpanzee has a gestation period of eight months. The infant is weaned at about three years old, but usually maintains a close relationship with its mother for several years more. Females will reach reproductive maturity by age 13 and can give birth at any time of the year. Chimpanzees exhibit large pink sexual swellings on their behinds which advertise their fertility to prospective mates. Chimpanzees usually give birth to just one infant and once born the infant will cling tightly to its mother’s fur for their first 30 days, and then take rides on her back until two years of age.

Can chimps walk on two legs?

Chimpanzees get around by climbing and swinging through trees and by walking on all fours (knuckle-walking) but they can also walk upright on two feet if they want to.

How clever are chimpanzees?

As well as using tools, some chimpanzees have even been able to learn basic human sign language.

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