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Differences Between Apes and Monkeys


In some countries, the same word is used for both Apes and Monkeys. Often this does not matter, but sometimes there are reasons to separate them in speech. Since the word 'Monkey' is often used for both monkeys and apes both in  Filipino English and in American English, I felt it would be useful to point out some differences.


The most obvious difference is in the tail. Most animals have tails. Some animals that do not have tails are Guineapigs, Manx Cats, Apes and Humans. Monkeys have tails, and Apes do not. This is generally true, but the 'Barbary Ape' that lives in Algeria, Morocco and Gibraltar is really a nearly tailless Monkey. They have a very short tail but this does not show up in most pictures. The golden Lion Tamarin Monkey on the left has a magnificent tail. The picture of a Chimpanzee on the right, taken by 'Red Gazelle' and used under a creative commons license shows the total lack of tail on this ape, and the picture of a Bonobo 'fishing' for termites also shows the that it has no tail.

The 'Barbary Ape' is more correctly called the 'Barbary Macaque'.  A Macaque is a type of monkey. This is the only primate other than Humans that roams free in Europe.


Apes are generally more intelligent than Monkeys.  In particular, Apes can recognise their own reflection as being themselves, but monkeys cannot. Apes of at least four species (Oran-utans, Bonobos, Chimpanzees and Gorillas) have been taught to communicate using specially designed keyboards.

Apes generally have bigger brains than Monkeys.


Apes have a similar arrangement of shoulder joint to Humans. Monkeys have a different arrangement. The arm of Apes and Humans is arranged to hang from tree branches and swing from them. Monkeys are also very good at going through trees, but they climb differently. South American monkeys often have prehensile tails that they can swing from.
Most animals can swim instinctively; for example if a Cat or a Guinea Pig falls into  deep water they swim quite well although they may dislike the experience. Monkeys can swim instinctively but Apes and Humans cannot. If a human child falls into the water they are likely to drown. The same is likely to happen to a baby Ape. humans can be taught to swim and most of us enjoy swimming. Very few Apes learn to swim, and even Bonobos which are excellent waders rarely take the next step and learn to swim.


Genetically, Apes are much closer to Humans than are Monkeys. Apes are also genetically closer to Humans than they are to Monkeys.


In most cases, Apes are bigger than Monkeys, but this is not a great way to tell them apart. The smallest Apes are the smallest Gibbons which are smaller than the biggest monkeys.

Animal and Human Culture

Humans have culture; we have many different and extremely complex cultures.  Do animals have culture?

The answer to this question depends on how you define culture.  If you use a definition that requires specific Human characteristics, you automatically exclude animals. 

However, there is little doubt that some groups of animals have something like culture in the sense of learned behaviour passed on by learning from one generation to another.  This is quite separate from things being passed on genetically.

A Cultural Revolution

In considering animal culture we need to accept that our understanding of some animals is rudimentary.

We do not know why Whales sing. We do know that their songs are complex and not random.

The Humpback Whales of Australian waters suddenly changed their song.  Apparently a Whale came up with another song that was so popular that soon all the Whales were singing it.  We do not understand the significance of this at all.

Human Dolphin Culture

Dolphins catch and eat fish.  One of their normal strategies is to herd a school of fish and trap it against the shore.  One group of Bottlenose Dolphins has taken this basic tactic a little further. 

At Laguna in Brazil the Dolphins chase schools of fish towards the shore.  Then they signal to the waiting fishermen to throw their nets.  The Dolphins feast on the fish the Humans miss, and the fishermen and their families get a good meal.

This has been going on since at least 1847 and has become part of the culture of the fishermen and their families of the area, being passed on from one generation to the next.

However, it must also have been passed on for a greater number of generations of Dolphin in the area.  It is now part of the cultural tradition of both species.

Different Dolphin Cultures at Shark Bay

In Human societies there are many overlapping cultures. These can be of different generations, people of different ethnic origins or simply different groups of friends. Can similar things happen with animals?

At Shark Bay in Western Australia two different groups of Dolphins have come up with completely different novel ways of fishing.  One family group catches fish from the seabed with the aid of pieces of sponge.

Another group has learned to catch fish in water only a few centimetres deep by building up speed and aquaplaning the last little bit, catching the fish.  Although the Dolphin is then in very shallow water, they seem to be able to judge it well enough to avoid being stranded. 

If one did get stranded they would have to hope that some of the many tourists who visit this area would help them back into the water. The tourist culture mostly does not include the eating of stranded Dolphins.

Ape Culture

In different groups of Chimpanzee there are different behaviours that appear to be learned, and nothing to do with any different conditions.  These things may be as simple as different techniques, requiring different tools to get Termites out of their nest.

I wonder about the completely different ways Chimpanzees and Bonobos behave towards others in their groups.

In Chimpanzees the group is completely dominated by the larger and more powerful males.  There is an Alpha Male, but unlike the Gorillas, he does not have exclusive right to mate with the Females.

In Bonobos, although observation indicates that there is an Alpha male, the society is dominated by the physically smaller females.

Chimpanzees will fight and can kill each other, while fighting is not normal with Bonobos, and lethal violence has rarely been recorded.


Chimpanzees and Bonobos are separate but related species of similar intelligence. In both cases they are sexually dimorphic with the males being significantly bigger than the females.

There is no obvious physical reason for their totally different societies. Some people have tried to explain the differences in the different conditions of their respective  habitats.  There may be some truth in this idea, but to me it more explains the origins of the difference rather than the mechanism of its continuation.

The truth is that we really do not know how the difference is maintained, but I think that it is mainly cultural, not genetic. Naturally, if it is cultural; the two species may have evolved along the lines of the cultural difference.

This is difficult to be sure of by observation alone, and any experiment in the wild would seriously put the animals at risk.

Zoo Culture

In zoos, animals may behave differently from in the wild.  At Monarto Zoo near Adelaide South Australia there is a group of four male Chimpanzees.  These four animals are friends. When the most highly strung one climbed to the highest point of their exercise bars he panicked when he saw Humans riding Camels.  One of the others went up and comforted him.

This is a completely unnatural group.  For one thing there are no females.  There is also no Alpha male.  

But, little do they know;  there are four young, sexually mature, female chimpanzees on the way.  The interactions will be interesting to observe.

Possibly the Chimpanzees of Monarto will build up a more peaceful culture than normal wild Chimpanzee culture.


Bonobo using a stick to catch termites.

Observations suggest that different groups of the same species of ape use variations of technique and tool, and that some of these variations are learned by the next generation.

Photo taken at San Siego Zoo by User:Mike R on 8 August, 2005.

Wikimedia Commons.This file is licensed under the

 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Mother Dolphins teach their babies.
Shark Bay in Western Australia
By OpenStreetMap contributors ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin at Shark Bay
By Brian W. Schaller (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons