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I. Introduction

Apes have 13 species of large, highly intelligent primates, including Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Gibbons, and Orangutans. Apes are sometimes confused with Monkeys, but unlike their smaller primate counterparts, apes do not have tails and their arms are usually longer than their legs. Apes live in tropical woodlands and forests of Africa and Asia. Despite sharing similar habitats, different ape species show striking differences in behaviors and ways of life.

At one time, apes were classified as a single group of primates, but today most zoologists divide them into two distinct families: the lesser apes, or gibbons, and the great apes. Gibbons are similar to monkeys, with lithe, slender bodies and extremely agile movements. Gibbons spend all of their lives in trees, using their hands like hooks to swing arm-over-arm between branches. Known as brachiation, this method of locomotion is so fast that gibbons can easily overtake a person running on the forest floor.

The great apes include the gorilla, the orangutan, and two species of chimpanzee: the common chimp and the bonobo (sometimes called the pygmy chimpanzee). Great apes are bigger than gibbons and also much less acrobatic. However, they are still good climbers. While orangutans spend most of their life in trees, where they use their long arms and dexterous hands and feet to grasp branches and vines, chimpanzees frequently come to the ground to feed. Gorillas are primarily terrestrial, but even fully grown adult males have been observed clambering among tree branches more than 15 m (49 ft) high. Chimpanzees and gorillas'the apes that spend the most time on the ground?normally walk on all fours, clenching their hands so that their knuckles take their weight.

From physical and fossil evidence, biologists know that apes and humans share a common ancestry. In recent years, biochemical analysis has shown just how close this link is?chimpanzees and humans differ significantly in only 2 percent of their genes. This evidence suggests that they diverged from a common ancestor around five to seven million years ago.

II. Range and Habitat

The gorilla, the common chimpanzee, and the bonobo live in dense tropical forests on the African continent. Chimpanzees also inhabit wooded savanna, where there are more opportunities for foraging out in the open. Most gorillas live in the hot, lowland forests of west and central Africa, but a subspecies called the mountain gorilla lives in a very different habitat. Its range extends as high as 3400 m (11,200 ft) on the cool, mist-covered slopes of the Virunga Mountains.

The gibbons and orangutans inhabit Southeast Asia. Gibbons live in rain forests and seasonal forests of India, Indochina, and the Malay Archipelago. The orangutan is purely a rain forest animal. Today its range is restricted to two large islands?Sumatra and Borneo?but fossils show that it once had a far greater range, reaching as far north as China.

III. Physical Characteristics

With their long limbs and opposable thumbs, apes are well adapted to a tree-climbing life. The smallest gibbons stand just 44 cm (17 in) tall and weigh just 4.5 kg (10 lb)?light enough to swing from the highest, smallest branches. Great apes are considerably larger, particularly male gorillas, which can be as tall as 1.8 m (about 6 ft) and weigh up to a quarter ton, making them by far the largest apes alive today. Male and female gibbons are usually similar in size, but in great apes, the sexes can differ greatly. Male orangutans, for example, often weigh more than twice as much as females.

Most apes are covered with thick fur. Gibbons have long fur of one color on the body and short fur of a contrasting color surrounding the face. A diverse range of colors distinguishes the different species and subspecies of gibbons, and there is frequently a difference in coloring between the sexes. The coloring of the great apes is drab by comparison. Orangutans have reddish brown fur, while the fur of chimpanzees and gorillas is black. Mature male gorillas are called silverbacks because the fur on their backs turns silvery gray.

Ape skulls and skeletons share the same underlying structure as those of humans, allowing for large brains and forward-pointing eyes. Like humans, apes also have bare skin on their faces, which enables them to communicate ...

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