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What is the Behavior of Chimpanzees?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The behavior of chimpanzees varies greatly depending on which of the two chimpanzee species is being considered – the Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), which lives north of the Congo River, and the Bonobo (Pan paniscus), which lives south. Though these chimpanzees are nearly indistinguishable anatomically – about 75-155 lbs (35-70 kg), standing at 0.9-1.2 m (3-4 ft) in height, with an average lifespan of 30-40 – their behavior couldn’t be more different.

The Common Chimpanzee is the more common and more vicious of the two. Hunting in troops, common chimps live in tribes led by an alpha male and characterized by complex social relationships, similar to the situation with humans. Among these chimp societies, as in many others, rape and murder are commonplace. Common chimps are substantially more aggressive than Bonobos, and have been known to attack and kill humans on occasion. This isn’t very difficult if the human is unarmed, as chimps have over 5 times the upper-body strength of a typical human male. These chimps are omnivorous, and have a substantial amount of meat in their diet.

In contrast to common chimps, the Bonobo species of chimpanzee is mostly vegetarian, nonviolent, matriarchial, and is famous for its sexual receptiveness. The reason for this substantial difference in behavior in not entirely known. The Bonobo chimp has proportionately longer limbs than the Common Chimpanzee, adapted for spending more time in trees, where they eat fruit. Bonobos have a slightly lighter build than common chimps. This is because they neither hunt nor fight as frequently as common chimps.

Chimpanzees of both species are highly intelligent, one of the smartest animals besides humans. Like the other great apes (gorillas and orangutans), chimpanzees are tool-users, capable of constructing their own rudimentary tools and using them in culturally specific ways. Before the discovery of tool use in chimps, it was thought that only humans were capable of using tools. Also like humans, chimpanzees are status conscious and capable of manipulation and deception. They take actions both for utility and social display. Tests on chimpanzee cognition have found that they can use symbols and can understand some aspects of language including relational syntax and concepts of numerical sequences.

Chimpanzees are capable of empathy and can produce laughter-like vocalizations, which has thrown into disrepute the quote by Aristotle that “only the human animal laughs.” Chimpanzees are one among few species that can pass the mirror test, that is, recognize a dot on their forehead upon looking into a mirror. This is considered an important indicator of self-awareness.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon314452 — On Jan 18, 2013

I just wanted to point out something in regards to Bonobo behavior. While it is true that they overall are less aggressive than chimps, Bonobos at times will attack each other and in some cases hunt smaller monkeys to eat. They aren't the "hippie" society that has been portrayed in earlier accounts.

By aLFredo — On Oct 25, 2011

Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to wild animals. Just because an animal looks mean and anti-social, doesn't mean they are. Just because an animal looks nice and sociable doesn't meant they are either. This goes for people too.

Even domesticated animals can randomly go on a wild rampage, so you just never know, no matter how socialized an animal is. We should never be surprised if an animal attacks us, because it is just a natural instinct for some animals to do so. Others animals it isn't a natural instinct.

This relates to the two different types of chimpanzee's because they both have natural instincts. The common chimps natural instinct is to attack, while the bonobo chimps' natural instinct is to love and be maternal. I would much rather meet a bonobo chimp than a common chimp!

It is horrible that some common chimps and humans commit crimes, especially ones that hurt or kill other people or animals, because they are both smart enough to know better. Just because it may be a natural instinct for some animals/people to do harmful things, does not make it okay or nonpunishable.

By KaBoom — On Oct 24, 2011

@strawCake - Like the article said, it looks like the two types of chimps live in the same place now: either side of the Congo. That doesn't necessarily mean they evolved their though!

I've read a bit about Bonobos, and I found out something pretty interesting. Bisexuality is fairly normal in Bonobos! I know a lot of anti-gay people scream and cry about homosexuality being unnatural. But if it occurs in nature, how unnatural could it be?

By strawCake — On Oct 24, 2011

@starrynight - Evolution does make a lot of sense. But I think there will always be people who just won't accept scientific fact, for whatever reason.

Anyway, I don't know that much about chimpanzees. But I have no idea there were two different kinds! It seems strange that they are basically the same species, but their behavior is so different, right down to their eating habits!

I wonder if there's some kind of evolutionary reason for this? Like maybe the common chimp evolved in an area where there wasn't a lot of vegetation for them to eat so they had to hunt for other animals?

By starrynight — On Oct 23, 2011

I think it's so interesting how much like humans chimpanzees are. They use tools, have hierarchy and even commit crimes like rape and murder. Not to mention all the similarities in build between humans and chimps. It's really fascinating!

I also think it's a pretty great argument for evolution. It seems reasonable to assume that humans, chimpanzees and other great apes all have the same biological ancestors. Why else would we be so much alike?

By bagley79 — On Oct 23, 2011

The only place I have ever seen chimpanzees interact is at the zoo. Many of the zoos do a good job of creating an area that is very similar to their natural habitat.

What I am most fascinated with is how social they are. Very rarely do you see one chimp alone for any length of time. If I see one sitting alone, it isn't long before another one comes along side it, or it goes to where others are gathered.

It is also interesting the way they care for each other as far as picking off the bugs and helping each other groom.

I have always seen docile behavior among them, but imagine they can be pretty vicious at times. I know I wouldn't want to be inside their area unprotected.

By golf07 — On Oct 22, 2011

I don't think a lot of people realize how strong chimpanzees are. Even though I love to watch them at the zoo and could spend an afternoon just observing their behavior, they are still wild animals.

I have always been amazed at how intelligent they are and how new research continues to show how much they are capable of.

When I was younger I always thought it would be neat to have one as a pet. When you see them in the movies or read about them in books, it is easy to imagine them living in your home.

Now there is no way I would want to have a chimp or any other kind of monkey as a pet. I will stick with watching them at the zoo.

By comfyshoes — On Oct 21, 2011

@Oasis11-I was reading that Jane Goodall is breaking ground on a construction project to create an enormous chimpanzee sanctuary in Congo. Many of these chimps were orphaned because their parents were captured for illegal trades.

I read that chimps living in an environment like this can live up to 60 years while the average life span of a chimp is only 40 years. This is really great news and I think that wild chimpanzees belong in places like this. I even feel a little sad when I see them at the zoo because they are not totally free like they would be in the wild.

By oasis11 — On Oct 20, 2011

@MissDaphne- What I don’t understand is how people can have these animals as pets. With all of the chimpanzee research available it is still amazing how many people have these wild animals in their home.

I really think that it is sort of cruel to have a chimpanzee in someone’s home because that is not their natural habitat and this is probably why they get aggressive at times because they are stressed.

I remember reading about a lady that almost got killed and had to have her face reconstructed because of her friend’s chimpanzee. I think that these animals should be banned as pets and be able to roam free in a chimpanzee sanctuary which is more like their natural habitat.

While these animals are cute when they are little they develop enormous strength that can be deadly.

By MissDaphne — On Oct 20, 2011

@MrsWinslow - Chimps can definitely be vicious, but I'm sure you would agree that endangered chimpanzees should be protected just like the nicer endangered gorillas. After all, they are our closest living relatives! And when they assist us with medical research, they deserve to be treated humanely. After all, an animal under stress won't yield good research anyway!

I've read some of Jane Goodall's stuff, too. She loves chimps, even though she's seen them do some really terrible things, but some of the chimps she studied clearly roused feeling of antipathy in her. Apparently, people often ask her if she likes chimps better than people. She always answers something like, "I like some chimps better than some people."

By MrsWinslow — On Oct 20, 2011

From looking at then, people tend to think that chimps (I'll be talking about common chimps here) are all sweet and cuddly, while gorillas are fierce and dangerous. At zoos, you'll see parents pushing strollers right up to the chimpanzee habitat, but hanging back from the gorillas.

It's true that gorillas are very strong, but so are chimps! And gorillas are peaceful vegetarians (I believe). Remember Koko the gorilla, with her pet cat? A chimp would have eaten that cat!

If a chimp could get ahold of your baby, it would eat it. They hunt and eat monkeys and Jane Goodall has observed chimps practicing cannibalism.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
Learn more
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