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chimpanzee

chimpanzee, an ape, genus Pan, of the equatorial forests of central and W Africa. The common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, lives N of the Congo River. Full-grown animals of this species are up to 5 ft (1.5 m) tall and weigh about 150 lb (68 kg); they have an arm spread of up to 9 ft (2.7 m) and are much stronger than humans. They are covered with long, black hair over most of the body and have naked faces ranging in color from nearly white to nearly black. The pygmy chimpanzee, P. paniscus, now usually called the bonobo, lives south of the Congo. It is a bit smaller and more slenderly built, with a black face.

Chimpanzees spend much time on the ground, where they walk on all fours, using the soles of the feet and the knuckles of the hands; they can also stand on two legs and sometimes walk this way for short distances. They climb trees in pursuit of food and for nesting and can swing by their hands from branch to branch. Their diet consists largely of fruit and other plant matter, but they also hunt and eat small animals, including monkeys. They use and even make primitive tools; for example, they collect termites using twigs and crack nuts using stones. Many primatologists now attribute culture to chimpanzees, noting learned variations in such skills and habits among different groups.

Chimpanzees move about the forest in bands of varying composition, usually numbering six to ten individuals. The males of a group engage in dominance contests involving much screaming and stamping. Family groups consist of mothers and offspring; females mate with many males during their fertile periods. A single infant is born every three to eight years; young chimpanzees ride about on their mothers' backs. Under ideal circumstances chimpanzees may live 50 years.

Although incapable of speech beyond their own simple vocalizations, captive chimpanzees have been taught to communicate in a language using visual rather than verbal symbols. Because of their close evolutionary relationship to humans they are often used for medical and behavioral experimentation, but the degree to which chimpanzees and humans are genetically close is a subject of dispute, with estimates of the amount of DNA the species share ranging from 94.6% to 99.4%. Chimpanzees, especially bonobos, are considered endangered species because of hunting and loss of habitat.

Chimpanzees are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Pongidae.

See G. H. Bourne, The Chimpanzee (6 vol., 1973); J. Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (1967) and The Chimpanzees of Gombe (1986); F. de Waal, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1998).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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