9 min read

Our Closest Relatives

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Surely by now, everyone knows that humans are an animal. Furthering that, surely everyone knows we're an ape too? Good, now that's out of the way we'll take a look at our closest animal relatives.

In the not too distant past we shared a common ancestor with these chaps, we are however the last remaining species of human having outsmarted the other species many years ago. The great apes are the closest thing we have left, so let's take a closer look at each of the world's great apes and find out just how much of a family resemblance there is between us.

Orangutan –

Of all the great apes, the Orangutan is the furthest from us but there are still many striking similarities. The only ape species to originate in Asia, Orangutans are divided into two subspecies; the Bornean and Sumatran. The most tree dwelling of the lot, Orangutans live a more solitary life than the other great apes with only mothers and young infants forming family units while the rest swing from branch to branch alone. Highly intelligent, they are known to make and use a wide variety of rudimentary tools. Living potentially as many as 40 years, Orangutans have the most similar diet to ourselves of any great ape as they chow down on birds eggs, insects, bark, vegetation, honey and, mostly, fruit. How similar to us are they really? Well, 96-97 percent of our DNA is identical. So pretty close. Notable features are, of course, those fantastic reddish brown locks and the longest arms of any great ape which averages out at around two metres. Dominant males also have those distinctive cheek pads, which certainly makes them look far more distinguished than any human cheek.

flickr | Evan

Gorilla –

The next closest great ape to us is the mighty Gorilla. By physical size, they are the largest living primates with males pushing six feet tall and weighing an average 20 stone. Yes, I did say average, big huh. Masters of the knuckle-walk, Gorillas are predominantly ground dwellers although the subspecies do venture into the canopy as well. Despite their world renowned appearance, they are divided into five subspecies which do all vary. That classic image you have in your head is the Mountain Gorilla which is one of our most endangered animals. Much more social than their ginger relatives, Gorillas live in troops which are led by one adult silverback male along with the females and their offspring. Unique among apes, Gorillas sleep in nests on the ground overnight given that branches are mostly too weak to support their massive frame. Gorillas too can live to about 40 years old and, being roughly 97 percent identical to ourselves, are our next closest family.

flickr | Allan

Bonobo –

Thought to be a subspecies of the next member of our list until relatively recently, Bonobos are tied for first place on our list for closest relatives. Bonobos form family communities that are more matriarchal than any other great ape as males gain their pedigree based on that of his mother, however rank and social standing play far less a part of bonobo society than they do of other great apes. Having displayed evidence of altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity in great depth, bonobos can regularly reach the age of 40. Physically, they share many characteristics with the next inhabitant of this list but distinguish themselves with slightly longer legs and the retaining of a tail tuft throughout their life. They eat a relatively varied diet compared to the Gorilla and Orangutan, tucking into vegetation, fruit, eggs, honey and even meat from small vertebrates. There's even reports of them hunting lower order primates as well. Residing in both the canopy and terrestrial habitats, the bonobos are unique to central Africa. All things accounted for; bonobos are roughly 98.7 percent identical to us.

flickr | Wandering Panda

Chimpanzee –

Who did you expect? Residents of central and eastern African predominantly, the chimpanzee is our closest living relative. Standing roughly four feet tall, Chimpanzees are broadly similar in size, shape and appearance to bonobos. Yet again highly intelligent, Chimpanzees have exhibited altruism, empathy, humour, patience, mourning, romance, the design and use of tools, communication, a sophisticated social structure which is used in hunting and even the appreciation of natural beauty. Yes, hunting, Chimpanzees are active hunters of lower order primates like red colobus and bush babies. In terms of how related they actually are, how does 99.3 percent sound? That's pretty similar. Like the others, chimpanzees can reach as old as 40. In fact, one Chimpanzee called Gregoire, who was helped by the Jane Goodall sanctuary reached the ripe old age of 62.

flickr | Valerie

Did you notice any family resemblances? Despite these being our closest relatives, we are a separate species from each. Our real closest family members were the other species of human who have lived throughout history who died out for various reasons, one of which being the environmental dominance of Homo sapiens. These chaps are the closest we have to family in the natural world. What more reason than that do we need to protect them?

By Guy Bezant – Online Journalism Intern Frontier runs conservation, development, teaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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