The Smartest Apes In The World

Orangutan close-up

Written by Sandy Porter

Updated: June 29, 2023

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Monkeys, chimps, gorillas, apes — all animals we hear about in the primate grouping. But what’s the difference and which ones are actually the most human-like? Or the most intelligent? Which ones use sign language and other forms of language communication? Which are considered to be the smartest apes in the world?

Let’s take a look at all these questions and see where they rank in the world’s list of smartest animals, too.

What Makes an Ape Different From a Monkey?

Spider monkeys on a tree.

Spider monkeys

have hairy faces — a good indicator that they’re monkeys and not apes.

Before we get started, let’s review some brief definitions and better understand the question we’re asking. First off, what’s the difference between apes and monkeys?

Many differences exist between these two groups of animals, but appearance and movement are the primary ways non-experts can tell apes from monkeys. First off, monkeys have tails and apes don’t. Additionally, larger and wider chests, near-naked faces, and larger overall size usually indicate apes. Monkeys tend to have hairy faces and smaller bodies.

Clinging and leaping from branch to branch is more characteristic of monkeys. Walking on all fours may occur for either monkeys or apes, but apes are the ones that will walk bipedally (two feet) with swinging arms.

What Kinds of Apes Are There?

Eastern lowland gorilla

Eastern lowland gorilla

is one species of ape.

Apes are divided into two basic classes: Great Apes and Lesser Apes. Lesser Apes include the 14 species of gibbons. Great Apes include orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans.

What Is The Difference Between Great Apes And Lesser Apes?

Coming from the same superfamily, both Great and Lesser Apes bear many similarities. However, Great Apes belong to the Hominidae family, the larger primates, which may or may not live in trees. Lesser Apes spend their lives primarily in trees and tend to be quite a bit smaller than the species of Great Apes.

The Smartest Ape Species Apart from Humans

Orangutan, bornean

Deemed some of the smartest apes on the planet, orangutans are exceptional creatures with expressive faces.

Overall, the species considered most intelligent among the ape species, apart from humans, are orangutans.

A few methods and ideas build this foundational thought on which species are the smartest. For one, orangutans are the only species known to be capable of “speaking” of past events. While we humans technically live in the present, we remember our past and think toward the future. Other animals may have memories (think about cats and dogs who haunt our doorways looking for their offspring that went to other homes), but it’s only orangutans and humans who are capable of communication through a form of language to discuss these past matters. The future matters to orangutans, as well, as they have demonstrated their ability to communicate about possible future events.

Additionally, orangutans are exceptionally adept at manipulating their environments through the use of tools and memories. They use these to create a sense of culture and create, in essence, “histories” for themselves through observation and communication with each other. The capability of controlling their laryngeal muscles also indicates the potential for developing language skills that could come into play in future studies and research.

Orangutans also learn new skills without instruction, which means their observation skills are exceptional and their learning capacities indicate significant intelligence often associated with human beings. 

A Close Runner-Up Species

Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Game Reserve - Uganda, East Africa

Chimpanzees are another exceptionally intelligent species of ape.

Often when you search out the most intelligent ape species, you’ll likely find chimpanzees top the lists. Until some more recent studies had been conducted, and the observations made with orangutans, chimpanzees were, indeed, considered the smartest apes in the world, apart from humans.

Considered to be our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees are consistently the species most folks think of as intelligent. They use vocalization in communication. They also use tools like humans do for problem-solving.

Notes on These Apes

It should be noted that often the given species of ape is capable of “ranking” as highly as another species in the studies conducted due to the lack of skills rather than a lack of intelligence.

The Number One Smartest Ape in the World

Portrait of bonobos. Close-up

Bonobos look similar to chimps but have definitive differences, though both are exceptionally intelligent.

Speaking of specific apes that we humans have monitored, a Bonobo ape wins the title. Kanzi has been deemed the most intelligent ape in the world, apart from humans. Residing at the Great Ape Sanctuary near Des Moines, Iowa, Kanzi has learned a great deal through observation of humans.

He reads, writes, plays with toys, and has a vocabulary of approximately 1000 words. Using lexigrams (symbols that represent specific words and objects), Kanzi puts together full sentences. He communicates clearly with his companions at the Great Ape Sanctuary. Kanzi’s mother was the ape being trained in these ways, but it was Kanzi who learned through observation and picked up all of the skills on his own.

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About the Author

Sandy Porter is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering house garden plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Sandy has been writing professionally since 2017, has a Bachelor’s degree and is currently seeking her Masters. She has had lifelong experience with home gardens, cats, dogs, horses, lizards, frogs, and turtles and has written about these plants and animals professionally since 2017. She spent many years volunteering with horses and looks forward to extending that volunteer work into equine therapy in the near future. Sandy lives in Chicago, where she enjoys spotting wildlife such as foxes, rabbits, owls, hawks, and skunks on her patio and micro-garden.

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