Chimpanzee Habitat: Places These Intelligent Apes Call Home

Chimpanzee Habitat
Chimpanzees are found exclusively in Africa, primarily in the tropical rainforests. Find out more about these intelligent apes and how their habitat influences them.
Chimpanzees inhabit the tropical rainforests and grasslands of central and western Africa. While they spend a considerable amount of time on the ground, they are primarily arboreal (tree-dwelling).

Rainforests usually feature a leaf canopy, which prevents a large majority of sunlight from reaching the ground. Chimpanzees live near the leaf canopy, and have adapted excellently to their natural habitat. They avoid semi-arid savannas due to the lack of sufficient foliage.

Where Chimps Swing
The geographical range of the various subspecies of chimpanzees extends across countries on or near the equator such as Tanzania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gabon, DR Congo, Nigeria, etc.

It has not been determined where chimpanzees originated, but fossils found in Kenya show that chimpanzees were present in that region about 2 million years ago (Ma). Taking into account that humans are considered to have originated in the same region (approx.), it would be a safe bet to conjecture that chimpanzees originated in southeastern Africa. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans share the family Hominidae with humans, making them - especially chimps and bonobos - our own closest evolutionary relative.

Credit:Cody.Pope/Wikipedia Commons (PD)

Chimpanzee subspecies:

Purple: Central Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes troglodytes
Blue: Eastern Chimpanzee, P. t. schweinfurthii
Green: Nigeria-Cameroon Chimpanzee, P. t. vellerosus
Yellow: Western Chimpanzee, P. t. verus
Red represents the bonobo population, Pan paniscus.

Although they live in a heavily hydrated habitat, and require a stable source of water, chimpanzees and bonobos are not good swimmers. This has led to a peculiar distribution of the two populations around the Congo river. Referring to the map given above, a gap can be readily observed between the chimpanzee subpopulations, shown in blue and purple, and the bonobo population, shown in red. This gap is actually the Congo river, which acts as a natural boundary between the two species. The inability of apes to swim is also put to good use in zoos, by placing water moats before the fences, making it harder for the primate to escape.

Palate of the Apes
Chimpanzees rely on fruits for a major percentage of their diet (called, incidentally, a frugivorous diet), thus necessitating a habitat with plenty of fruit-bearing trees. They also feed on various other plant parts, such as seeds and leaves. The evergreen rainforests inhabited by chimps are one of the few ecosystems that can fulfill their collective needs.

Previously thought to be entirely herbivorous, Dr. Jane Goodall's extensive research showed that chimps are, in fact, omnivores. Most of their carnivorous feeding occurs in the form of insects, which thrive in the warm, humid rainforest climate. Groups of chimpanzees also frequently hunt smaller primates in co-ordinated attacks, using their densely forested habitat to their advantage. They even assign specific tasks to individual chimps during the hunt, such as chasing, blocking and ambushing the prey. The chasers maneuver the prey - usually colobus monkeys - to a pre-determined location, where the ambushers lie in wait. The blockers do the job of not letting the prey escape via any other possible channels. The chimps' mastery over swinging through the dense rainforest in pursuit of the prey is vital for the success of the hunt.

The Jungle Book of Cutlery
The presence of opposable thumbs, coupled with an intelligence rarely excelled in animals apart from humans, allows chimpanzees to use various tools, such as using a stick to 'fish' in termite mounds and anthills, and using a chewed-up leaf as a sponge to absorb and retain water. They use stones to crack open various nuts. Thanks to the abundance of the aforementioned foods, the chimpanzee's ability to use tools allows it to exploit its surroundings to a great degree. They also build arboreal nests using branches and leaves, and may use large branches to fend off predators. The abundance of foliage, insects and other primate and mammalian prey, explains why chimpanzees prefer the habitat. However, many subpopulations are being forced to migrate to possibly unfavorable habitats, due to human encroachment leading to the destruction of their preferred habitat. Although chimpanzees are arguably the most adaptable of apes, the scale of the enforced mass migration is alarming.

The Wrath of Man
Not many predators pose a significant threat to an adult male chimpanzee. Thus, the greatest threat to chimpanzees comes from habitat destruction precipitated by humans. Africa's forests are continually exploited for their natural resources, and eradicated to make way for development projects, infrastructural expansion, etc. More than 1 million hectares of tropical rainforests have been cut down in unsustainable fashion, destroying prime chimpanzee habitat. The loss of the chimpanzee's natural habitat not only causes them to have to adapt to different environment, but binds countless other species to the same fate as well. Chimps can adjust to more arid locations over time, but it is not the ideal habitat for this forest-dwelling animal.

Among predators, leopards, who share the chimpanzees' habitat, cause the largest number of kills. Juvenile chimpanzees are at risk from numerous predators, but they are usually protected collectively by the tribe.

A lesser threat comes from the pathogens that humans carry. Since chimps and humans have genetic models that are more than 95% similar, most pathogens can transfer between chimps and humans with relative ease.

Chimpanzees are currently placed in the endangered category in the IUCN Red List, and if deforestation carries on at the present rate, it wouldn't be too long before they become critically so. The next time you laugh at the boisterous, playful chimp in the zoo, the least you can do is spare a thought for the travails its wild cousins currently face.