Learn About Chimps

Chimpanzee Myths and Fun Facts

Jordan Garbarino
Jordan Garbarino April 11, 2019
Slim 2023 Chimp

It’s safe to say that caring for chimpanzees – let alone more than 270 of them – is a unique profession! Caregivers are often asked what it is like to work with chimps from friends, family, and sanctuary guests. I surveyed some of our caregivers for their favorite fun facts about chimpanzees are, as well as some myths they’d like busted about the species. Let’s dig into some of them below:

Myth: Many chimpanzees know sign language and can be taught to communicate this way.
Very few chimpanzees actually know sign language! There have been a small handful of great apes who have been taught some form of sign language or symbols to communicate, but certainly not the majority of the population. This myth probably stems from the many gestures and facial expressions chimps already use to communicate with each other and the deep interest in knowing if our closest living relative could master and use a language familiar to us.

Fun Fact: Chimpanzees are purposeful pointers.
If you’ve ever pointed a finger to identify something you want, you are a purposeful pointer! Chimpanzees also fall into this category. They are capable of pointing to an object they want to let someone know that they want it. At Chimp Haven, Emma is infamous for pointing at nearby blueberry bushes or our food storage building any time staff is near in an attempt to acquire some additional snacks.

Emma the Purposeful Pointer

Myth: Chimpanzees are monkeys.
This is a very common misconception about chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are not monkeys! Most primates fall into two categories: great apes and monkeys. There are many differences between the two, but the easiest way to tell if a primate is a monkey or a great ape is by noting whether or not they have a tail. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons all do not have tails – making them apes! Monkeys not only have tails, but are usually smaller in size compared to apes.

Fun Fact: Not all alphas are male.
Chimpanzee family groups are organized into hierarchies for both males and females. In most chimpanzee troops the leader of this hierarchy, or “alpha” of the group, is male. However, there are some cases when a female will rise through the ranks to become the alpha. Some of our notable “girl bosses” are Slim and Ellie.

Stoic and firm Slim is the alpha of her group of 11 and this is apparent when her groupmates rush to greet her each morning when she makes her appearance at breakfast.
Ellie is serious and diplomatic in handling disputes amongst her group of seven and is quick to reassure the upset parties and try to restore peace.

Myth: Chimps can smile like humans do.
Chimpanzees have a wide variety of facial expressions but a true smile is not one of them. The expression commonly believed to be a smile – where the lips are pulled back completely to show both the top and bottom teeth – is actually what we call a fear grimace. Chimps make this expression when they are afraid, unsure, stressed, or wanting to appear submissive to a more dominant troop member.

The closest expression chimps have to a smile is a play face. A chimpanzee enjoying a good tickle session with another chimp may show their bottom row of teeth with their mouth open and relaxed. It may even be accompanied by laughter (one of the best sounds on earth in my opinion). More on that below.

Onyx makes a play face as she and Riley have a play session.

Fun Fact: Chimpanzees laugh.
This is one of my personal favorite facts about chimps. No matter what mood I’m in, hearing our retirees laugh will instantly brighten my day. The laugh of a chimpanzee is breathy and can be subtle or loud depending on the individual. Not every chimp laughs every time they play, which makes it all the more special to hear.

Myth: Chimpanzees only eat fruit and leaves.
Chimpanzees might seem to be herbivores but they are technically omnivores! While they do eat mostly plants and fruit, a very small portion of a wild chimpanzee’s diet is meat. Chimpanzees are skilled hunters and male chimpanzees are quite strategic, planning organized hunts to find their catch. At Chimp Haven chimpanzees receive daily protein biscuits instead of meat, and we haven’t heard any complaints yet.

Fun Fact: Every chimpanzee is individual in appearance and in personality.
A common question care staff is asked is, “How can you tell them apart?” The answer is: many different ways. The ways one chimpanzee differs from the group are the exact same ways you might differ from your friends. Some chimps have more hair, darker hair, lighter eyes, speckling on their faces, different shapes of facial features, or even could be taller or larger than their groupmates. For instance, Latoya has a lot of light brown splotches on her face and bright orange eyes, whereas Gracie has a pink splotch on her upper lip and darker brown eyes.

Latoya (left) and Gracie (right)

Another thing that makes each chimp an individual is their personality. An example of this could be the rewards used during positive reinforcement training sessions. Chimps have preferred foods, just like humans! Hulk will only train if apples are available, Ellie will not accept dried fruit, and Bryan is fine with just some juice.

We hope you enjoyed this quick look into chimp myths and facts. What’s your favorite chimp fact??

Jordan Garbarino
Jordan Garbarino
Positive Reinforcement Training Program Supervisor