Is a Chimp a Monkey? (Nope!)

Written By: Catherine Annau & Tatiana Hayek, JGI Canada Volunteers
Category: Great Apes

Like humans, monkeys and apes are primates and have evolved to live among trees. They share forward-facing eyes for depth perception and flexible limbs to move between branches. Monkeys and apes also exhibit many facial expressions.

Because monkeys and apes have much in common, many people think they are the same animal, when, in fact, they belong to two different groups of primates. How can you tell the difference? It’s not as confusing as you might think. All you need to do is ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does it have a tail? Most monkeys have a tail, but apes don’t.
    chimpanzees all walking away
  2. Does it swing through the trees? Apes have greater mobility in their shoulder joints, so they can gracefully swing from tree to tree. Monkeys are limited to scurrying along the tops of branches. The term “monkey bars” is a little bit misleading!
    chimps swinging from monkey bars (haha, the irony)
  3. Does it look and act a lot like me? Apes share more characteristics with humans than monkeys do. They are generally larger and smarter than monkeys, can stand on two legs, have opposable thumbs and can manipulate simple tools, and can show signs of understanding language. It makes sense – bonobos and chimpanzees, both apes, are our closest living relatives; they share nearly 99% of our DNA.
    Chimps holiding hand of caregiver

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to confidently tell an ape from a monkey. These questions can even help identify some of the world’s most loved cartoon characters. For example, Curious George has no tail and so must be an ape. On the other hand, Rafiki, from The Lion King, has a very long tail – he is a monkey.

Rafiki from the Lion King

Curious George

Photo Credit: Fernando Turmo, JGI Congo.