Is Koko the gorilla real?

What you probably didn't know about great apes

Do you already know everything about great apes? I thought the same. But then I took part in a tour of the new ape house in Wilhelma, the zoological-botanical garden in Stuttgart. And it quickly became clear to me: These fascinating animals still have many stories to tell - or rather, their keepers. Here are a few of them.

1. Same blood types

Great apes have the same blood types as we do: A, B, AB or 0. These variants originated more than 20 million years ago; Humans and all great apes therefore have them in common. These blood groups are even found in many lower species of apes, such as gibbons. The rhesus factor is also not typically human.

Theoretically, chimpanzees, gorillas and the like could donate blood to us and, conversely, we could donate blood to animals - provided, of course, that the blood group is the same. Because the AB0 variants and the Rhesus factor are the most important blood characteristics that determine the success and failure of a blood transfusion.

However, donating blood is not that easy in reality. Humans and monkeys are different species, so their blood still differs in many details. One would have to learn to understand these differences first.

In many zoos, like here in Berlin, great apes work out their food with tools on a poke box

2. Bonobos are sniff noses

The peaceable great apes with their graceful stature are very sensitive to respiratory diseases and easily catch cold viruses. "You are constantly coughing and snarling," said a zoo employee. That is why they are strictly forbidden to go out in the Stuttgart Zoo as soon as the weather is a little cooler: Then the outdoor enclosure is taboo. Great apes can also easily become infected with the flu or cold in humans.

3. Why great apes cannot speak

In the film "Planet of the Apes", gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans can speak like us. The fact that they don't actually do this is because their larynx is too high up in the throat and there is not enough space between the soft palate and the larynx - the resonance space is too small. Incidentally, it is the same with the human child who cannot speak yet. In the great ape, the larynx muscles and vocal cords cannot move as freely and coordinated as in humans.


4. How great apes can communicate with humans

Scans of great ape brains show that the animals have a kind of language center preliminary stage. Presumably that's why they can learn human sign language. Some monkeys can use and understand more than a thousand signs. Of course, they don't form sentences as complex as humans - but they do create new words, for example. The gorilla lady Koko in the USA combined the signs for white and tiger to describe a zebra: white animal with stripes.

Other word constructions that great apes came up with were:

Ball + beans => peas

Bottle + match => lighter

Bark + sky + dog => helicopter

As a zoo employee said, gorillas in particular like to curse and often swear if you teach them the appropriate signs for swear words.

Laughter, fear and anger - all emotions that great apes experience just as much as we do

5. Great apes like to sit in front of the telly

In the Stuttgart Zoo, US primatologist Amy Parish is studying how bonobos react to television films. A television screen is set into the wall of the enclosure and there is a big cinema for an hour a day. According to the zoo employee, the monkeys are enthusiastic: "We showed them our zoo documentary 'Eisbär, Affe & Co' - they thought they were really good!" They are very interested in other animals. The only trouble is when the zoo vet appears in the series: "Then the bonobos freak out, shake their fists and scream angrily."


6. Abnormal: great apes as sex slaves

The fact that they are so similar to us also has disadvantages for great apes: some are sexually abused. In Asia, for example, some orangutans lead a sad life in questionable brothels.


7. Danger of moat

Great apes cannot swim. Therefore, zoos must be careful with moats in great ape enclosures: the large animals could drown quickly. Nevertheless, Wilhelma decided to build a moat in the new ape house. However, it is separated with electric wire and has a non-swimmer area. Let's hope that goes well.

Close mother-child relationship - also with bonobos and other great apes


8. First the contraceptive pill

Female gorillas do not usually mate with their closest relatives, that is, with their father or brothers. Instead, in the wild, when they reach reproductive age, they leave their group. They look for a new group with a silverback that they like - they join them. So the choice is up to the women.

If female gorillas are to have offspring in captivity, zoos give the females to other zoos as soon as the animals reach puberty - precisely because of this incest taboo.

At Wilhelma, newly arrived female gorillas are given birth control pills. Because the animals should first experience how other female gorillas have cubs and take care of the offspring. Because being a good mother is a learned behavior in great apes. Raising children is not that easy - not even for great apes.

Dominant male orangutans have wide cheeks

9. Cheek bulges in orangutans

In orangutans, the dominant males develop cheek bulges. These are the overflowing structures on the face. Orangutan females love it and prefer to be mated by males with bulging cheekbones. After all, bulging cheeks show that a male is high up in the hierarchy, so has something to say in the group.

At Wilhelma, however, there was an astonishing case some time ago: the highest-ranking male simply did not want to develop bulges - nobody understood why. "It was only when the responsible zoo keeper was gone for six months that this orangutan got its bulging cheeks," says a zoo employee.

Obviously the orderly had taken on the role of the dominant male. When the zoo employee was absent, the orangutan rose to the highest rank. You can imagine that there was trouble when the nurse returned at some point ...

10. Closer kinship than many believe

Author Brigitte Osterath has already looked for mountain gorillas in the jungle of Uganda

All living things on earth are divided into families and genera. Chimpanzees and bonobos belong to the genus Pan; Humans are the only remaining members of the genus Homo. Both genera belong to the hominid family - the great apes. So, taxonomically, humans are also great apes.

Scientists have been arguing about the genera Pan and Homo for a long time. Many believe that the division into two genera is completely arbitrary. Humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are so similar that they should all be "Pan" or all "Homo". But as you can imagine, some people find that quite a bit. Therefore, there are two different genres - at least for now.