All About Apes

We are so excited to start off this session of LEAP in the Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA), home to the zoo’s chimpanzees and gorillas. We noticed right away that it seems the ape residents of RCAA are also excited to have us play in their home, particularly the chimpanzees. The chimps come up to the window without fail every morning when we set up the process art, building, and music stations. They peer through the glass curiously, checking out what new things the LEAPers will play with that day and continue observing the fun after everyone else arrives. Since this is the first time we have held LEAP in RCAA, some of you may have questions about the building and the apes who live inside. Here are a few FAQ’s that might be useful for you when talking with your children about the apes either at LEAP or at home:

What is a primate?

There are more than 300 species of primates, including monkeys, prosimians, and apes, including humans. Primates have nails on their flexible hands and feet, good eyesight, and a large brain. You can visit more primates at the Helen Brach Primate House next door to RCAA and also at our newest exhibit, the Regenstein Macaque Forest. 

What is the difference between monkeys and apes?

The easiest way to tell a monkey apart from an ape is the presence of a tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not. Gorillas and chimpanzees do not have tails, so they are apes, not monkeys! Apes also rely more on vision than smell, and they have been observed creating tools and using language.  They also have more complex social lives and have the ability to problem solve.

Why are there two separate gorilla exhibits?

RCAA has two troops of gorillas, a family troop and a bachelor group. A family troop consists of one dominant silverback male and several mature females and their young, while a bachelor troop is a group of gorillas that consists of only males. In the wild, male gorillas leave the family troop that they were born into when they reach maturity at around 7-10 years old. The dominant silverback now sees these mature youngsters as rivals for the females in the troop. The young gorillas then either find females to start their own family troop or they join a bachelor troop with other males.

Why do the apes sometimes bang on the glass?

Apes will be apes, and our chimpanzees and gorillas roughhouse and play in a way similar to people- particularly those teenage bachelor gorillas. Apes will chase and tackle each other and will also sometimes interact with the apes on the other side of the glass- us. This is normal behavior and can be very exciting to experience. However, even if an ape bangs on the glass it doesn’t mean they are inviting us to do the same. Tapping or banging the glass can frighten or disturb them and we want ensure we respect our ape neighbors, especially since they are letting us play in their home!

I’ve noticed the chimpanzees do some interesting things with their poop…?

You may have been startled to see the chimpanzees at RCAA walking around with feces in their mouth or smearing it on the glass. While we may find this unpleasant (especially since we don’t want our LEAPers to replicate it!) this behavior is actually normal for chimpanzees in the wild. Poop-eating even has a scientific name- coprophagy. This behavior occurs in the wild as a way to obtain extra nutrition in their diet. Since much of a chimp’s diet is very fibrous, not all the nutrients are absorbed the first time down, so to speak. Chimps will extract seeds and other fibers from their poop and eat them again. Coprophagy is a learned behavior. One chimp sees another chimp doing something, and they try out that behavior themselves. Even though food is not scarce at the zoo, some chimps still exhibit this behavior because they learned it from someone else and it’s become simply a habit. We don’t know the exact reason why they enjoy it so much-perhaps they do it just to gross out us humans!

Hopefully this post helps you feel more informed and ready to chat with your little ones about the animals in the Regenstein Center for African Apes. If you have any other questions, please comment below or ask us at class. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you about apes!

-Stacey Martin