By Dr. Becker
Chimpanzees and humans are remarkably similar, sharing about 99 percent of our DNA.1 That makes chimpanzees our closest living relatives (along with bonobos, which were formerly called pygmy chimpanzees and also share more than 98 percent of their DNA with us). Like humans, chimps live in social communities and can adapt to different environments, such as African rain forests and grasslands.
They can also walk upright on two legs (although they typically walk on all-fours), and though they usually stick to a diet of fruit and plants, they consume some meat (as well as eggs and insects) on occasion.
Other similarities? Chimpanzees make tools, such as using stones to open nuts or leaves to soak up drinking water. They can also learn sign language and reach reproductive age in a similar timeframe to humans -- 13 (for females) and 16 (for males).2
What else is intriguing about chimps? Quite a bit, actually. Discovery News recently compiled six shocking facts about chimpanzees that, in addition to satisfying your intellectual appetite, make great conversation points for your next dinner party (or trip to the water cooler).3
6 Facts About Chimps You Probably Don't Know
1. Chimps Can Be Cold-Blooded Killers
Packs of male chimps sometimes carry out "brutal raids" on other groups of chimps, for the purpose of expanding their territory (which means they get more land, extra food, and also increased access to females). When carrying out such raids, the chimps are said to move purposefully and "with stealth."
2. Male Chimps Have Spines on Their Penises
The purpose is most likely to increase stimulation during mating… and human males apparently had similar spines at one point, too.
3. Chimps Are Innovative
Chimps not only create tools, but different chimps will come up with different ways to accomplish goals, depending on what resources are available. For example, three groups of chimpanzees used eight different innovative methods of opening hard-shelled monkey oranges:
Banging them against a tree Banging them against a rock Nibbling a hole in them Throwing them Using teeth to break the shell Smacking the fruits together Stomping on them Peeling them
4. Chimps Laugh
Many animals laugh, including chimps, rats, and puppies. If you tickle a chimp, he may very well laugh (not that I recommend doing so!), and he'll likely laugh at other situations that would also draw laughter from humans. According to Discovery News:4
"Their laughter comes in the same sorts of situations as humans, sounds like a human and they laugh more than we do, since they can do it while inhaling AND exhaling."
5. Chimps Help Others
Chimps will share tools with other chimps or physically assist them on projects. And, once they've helped out a pal one time, they're known to continue doing so about 97 percent of the time.
6. Chimps Grieve
Chimps face death and dying in much the same way as humans, holding vigil over chimps who are dying (including both touching and grooming them) and grieving once they are gone.
NIH Ended Use of Most Chimps in Research in 2013
In 2011, the Institute of Medicine declared that invasive medical research on chimps could no longer be justified, and many countries around the world have already stopped the practice. In fact, the US is the only country that owns chimpanzees for research.
Fortunately, last year the National Institutes of Health (NIH) took an important step toward a "more compassionate era," noting that chimps "deserve special respect."5
Plans were made to retire 400 of its approximately 450 chimps, some of which had been in used in laboratory research for 50 years. According to the recommendation, the remaining chimps would be maintained for possible future use, but with changes to their housing to be implemented over the next five years. In addition, three guiding principles will be used to assess the need for chimps in biomedical and behavioral research studies in the future:
- The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public's health.
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
- The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.
The criteria for evaluating the need for chimpanzees for biomedical research would ensure the following standards are met:
- There is no other suitable model available, such as in vitro, nonhuman in vivo, or other models, for the research in question.
- The research in question cannot be performed ethically on human subjects.
- Forgoing the use of chimpanzees for the research in question will significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control, and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.
Advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees essentially unnecessary as research subjects, and the new criteria effectively closed 16 research projects that had been underway.
Chimpanzees Are an Endangered Species
Millions of chimpanzees used to live and roam freely in Africa, but today there are only an estimated 170,000 to 300,000 chimps left in the area, making them an endangered species. According to some estimates, the chimp population living on the Ivory Coast has decreased by 90 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers continue to dwindle, due to habitat destruction, hunting, and disease.6 As reported by SavetheChimps.org:7
"The increasing human population is encroaching ever deeper into even protected areas of chimpanzee habitats, and large scale logging is now a major threat to the forest primates of Africa. Subsistence hunting of chimpanzees as a source of meat is nothing new, but there is now a thriving but unsustainable commercial market for bushmeat (the meat of wild animals), including chimpanzees.
Increased contact with humans, both local people and eco-tourists, has also brought the threat of diseases which may be mild in humans but lethal to chimps."
The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is working in Africa to help manage protected areas and protect chimps from further destruction by:8
- Protecting chimpanzees through anti-poaching and effective law enforcement
- Helping governments establish and manage national parks
- Monitoring chimpanzee populations
- Encouraging sustainable use of forest resources in park buffer zones
- Building trans-boundary collaboration to develop partnerships between neighboring countries
If you'd like to get involved, WWF has a (symbolic) "adopt a chimpanzee" program to help support its conservation efforts and protect chimps from extinction.
Are Dogs Even More Like Humans Than Chimps?
Dogs share far more of their DNA with wolves than they do with humans, yet because dogs have lived among humans for so long and undergone so much domestication, some believe they're more like humans than even chimps -- and could serve as a model for understanding human social behavior. One study even argued that dogs should serve as the "new chimpanzees" in comparative studies designed to shed light on human uniqueness.9 That study found dogs exhibit all three of the primary social behaviors as humans, including:
- Sociality: Organizing into groups where members show loyalty and reduced aggression to one another.
- Synchronization: Sharing social rules and emotions, which leads to stronger group unity.
- Constructive activity: Individuals within a group cooperate and communicate with each other to achieve goals.
Dogs can even tell the difference between rational and irrational human communication. It's just one more demonstration of humans' close ties to the species around us, and more justification of why so many of us choose to surround ourselves with animals (not that we needed any!).