What Makes Apes Different from Monkeys?

While roaming through the heart of the Wonderopolis jungle, we happened to overhear an interesting conversation between a couple of hairy creatures:

Monkey: Pass me another banana, buddy.

Ape: Do you not think you’ve had enough already?

Monkey: No way! You know I go crazy for bananas!

Ape: Here’s the last one. Now stop fooling around!

We tried to get a closer look at them, but we slipped on a banana peel and…well…we don’t remember much after that!

Who were these creatures munching on bananas? Were they monkeys? Could they have been apes? Or were they both? Exactly what distinguishes apes from monkeys?

Throughout history, people have often used the terms “monkey” and “ape” interchangeably. In fact, many people today will refer to apes as monkeys and vice versa. However, there are distinct differences between the two.

Before delving into the differences, it’s important to note that both apes and monkeys are primates. There are over 300 species of primates on Earth, including humans and other apes, monkeys, and prosimians like lemurs. Primates are characterized by having hands, handlike feet, and forward-facing eyes. Most primates, except humans, are nimble arboreal animals.

Considering that lemurs and humans are both primates, for instance, it is evident that there are significant disparities among the various types of primates. Most of these distinctions can be explained in terms of physical attributes and evolutionary development over time.

The quickest and simplest way to differentiate monkeys from apes is by examining the presence of a tail. Apes do not possess tails, while the majority of monkey species do. In addition, apes tend to be larger in size and typically have larger brains compared to monkeys. Apes also have longer lifespans than monkeys.

Monkeys generally have skeletal structures resembling those of smaller, quadruped mammals like cats and dogs. When moving through trees, monkeys traverse branches by running, whereas apes swing from branch to branch using their arms (a behavior known as brachiating).

Monkey species include baboons, macaques, marmosets, tamarins, and capuchins. Ape species include humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and bonobos.

In terms of evolution and genetics, ape species are much more closely related to humans than monkeys. Apart from sharing similar basic body structures, apes demonstrate high intelligence and can display human-like behavior. For instance, chimpanzees, which are genetically closest to humans, are capable of creating simple tools and using them effectively.

While monkeys communicate with each other, apes possess more advanced cognitive and language skills. Although they cannot speak like humans, they can communicate with humans effectively through sign language and other physical gestures. Communication skills allow gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos to develop intricate social groups and even exhibit some aspects of culture. Like humans, apes are capable of critical thinking and problem-solving in their surroundings.

Give It a Try

Did today’s Wonder of the Day make you go wild? Don’t forget to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

Test your knowledge about primates

Do you think you have a lot of knowledge about primates? Challenge yourself by taking the Amazing Animals: Primate Quiz online. How well did you do on the quiz? Were you able to score as high as you expected? Did you learn any new facts?

Have you heard of Koko? Koko is a famous and photogenic gorilla that you might want to get to know. Explore the KokoFlix Videoblog Archive online and watch some videos with a friend or family member. Would you be interested in meeting Koko in person? What are your reasons for wanting or not wanting to meet Koko?

The Jane Goodall Institute is widely recognized for its efforts in protecting great apes in their natural habitats. Find out more about how the organization utilizes Science & Technology for Conservation. Can you think of any other ways that science and technology could be utilized to help endangered species survive in their native habitats? Share your ideas with a friend or family member.

Additional sources for further exploration:

  • http://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/monkeys-vs-apes.htm
  • https://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/Primates/Facts/
  • http://www.chimphaven.org/education/chimp-facts/
  • http://www.centerforgreatapes.org/treatment-apes/about-apes/
  • http://acp.eugraph.com/apes/


1. What is the main difference between apes and monkeys?

Apes and monkeys belong to the same family of primates, but they have some distinct differences. One main difference is the presence of a tail. Monkeys have a long tail, while apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, do not have a tail. Another difference is their size. Monkeys are generally smaller than apes, with a few exceptions like mandrills. Additionally, apes have a more complex brain structure and are known for their higher intelligence compared to most monkeys. Finally, apes have a more upright posture and can walk on two legs, while monkeys usually walk on all fours.

2. Are apes and monkeys from the same evolutionary lineage?

Apes and monkeys share a common ancestor and are both part of the primate evolutionary lineage. However, they diverged from each other millions of years ago. Apes, including humans, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees, belong to the family Hominidae. Monkeys, on the other hand, belong to the family Cercopithecidae. Both apes and monkeys have evolved and adapted to their respective environments over time, leading to the differences we see today.

3. Can apes and monkeys interbreed?

No, apes and monkeys cannot interbreed. While they share some similarities due to their common ancestry, they have different chromosome numbers and genetic compositions that prevent them from successfully reproducing with each other. Additionally, the behavioral and physical differences between apes and monkeys further hinder any possibility of interbreeding.

4. Which group, apes or monkeys, is more closely related to humans?

Apes are more closely related to humans than monkeys. Humans, along with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, are part of the family Hominidae, which is often referred to as the great apes. This means that humans share a more recent common ancestor with apes compared to monkeys. The genetic and anatomical similarities between humans and apes are greater than those between humans and monkeys.

5. Do apes and monkeys have similar social structures?

While both apes and monkeys are social animals, they have different social structures. Monkeys typically live in large groups with a hierarchical structure, where dominant individuals have control over resources and mating opportunities. On the other hand, apes, especially chimpanzees and bonobos, have more complex social structures. They form smaller social groups, exhibit cooperation and empathy, and engage in intricate social behaviors like grooming and forming alliances.

6. Are apes and monkeys endangered?

Yes, many species of apes and monkeys are endangered. Due to habitat loss, poaching, and other human activities, their populations have been declining rapidly. Some species, such as the Sumatran orangutan and the Western lowland gorilla, are critically endangered. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these primates and their habitats to ensure their survival for future generations.

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