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Monkeys and Apes

  • LEVEL: GRADES 2 - 6


Encourage a greater respect for the intrinsic value and worth of animals.


This unit will enable students to identify monkeys and apes and the similarities they share with humans. Their differences will be explored as well. Students will learn about the family and social structures, behavioral characteristics and physical needs of these animals. Additionally, students will develop an understanding of the ethical issues raised by human use of monkeys and apes and will explore various human perspectives and subsequent actions.


The monkeys that live in Central and South America are called New World monkeys. Their nostrils are very far apart. Many of these monkeys have long tails. New World monkeys are small and weigh about 15 pounds. They live in trees. A spider monkey is an example of a New World monkey.

Monkeys who live in Africa and Asia are called Old World Monkeys. These monkeys have nostrils that are very close together. Some have tails and some do not. Baboons are an example of Old World monkeys. They are bigger and stronger than New World monkeys.

Apes do not have tails. Chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas are called the great apes. They are larger than monkeys. A male gorilla might weigh as much as 450 pounds. A gibbon is called a lesser ape and weighs about 30 pounds.

Monkeys, apes, and humans all belong to what humans have designated as the highest order of mammals named primates. There are over 180 species of mammals that are considered primates. Primates have forward-looking eyes and strong, gripping fingers. Compared to their body size, they have relatively large brains and are considered highly intelligent.

It may be especially interesting to watch and study monkeys and apes since they are like humans in many ways. We can often find a variety of species in our local zoos. They are also used in circuses, in medical research and as "bushmeat." This unit is designed to help students learn more about these animals, which like humans are members of the primate family.


Students will be able to identify monkeys and apes.

MOTIVATION: Ask your students to name the monkeys and apes they know. Ask the students if any of them can name specific species of monkeys and apes and are able to describe the physical characteristics of these animals.


  1. Read or have the students read the book Monkeys and Apes with the class. Develop one or more experience charts with the class summarizing the information in this book.
  2. Have the students borrow library books about monkeys and apes from the school or public library to read to themselves and to the class. Have them write book reports and make drawings of monkeys and apes to share with the class. Develop a bulletin board to display these reports. Have the students include information about the physical characteristics of apes and monkeys, what they eat, where they live, their family or social groupings and how they communicate.


Students will be able to identify ways in which monkeys, apes and humans are alike and ways in which they are different.

MOTIVATION: Have students begin to classify information about monkeys and apes which they have gathered from the library.

Which have nostrils far apart? Which have nostrils close together? Which are smaller? Which are larger? Which have longer tails? Which have no tails? Which have opposable thumbs?


Compare and contrast monkeys, apes and humans. Use the "Venn Diagram" and the "Semantic Feature Analysis" charts on the following pages. You may also want to construct charts which are composed of pictures of Old World monkeys, New World monkeys and apes.


Students will be able to identify characteristics of monkeys and apes by

  1. studying their behaviors in "the wild" through the use of books and videos and
  2. studying their behavior at local zoo.


Have the students preview The Chimpanzee Family Book by Jane Goodall by looking at the photographs in this book. Ask them to predict what will happen in this book based on the photographs.


  1. Read The Chimpanzee Family Book. Ask students a variety of questions ncluding detail and inference questions about this book. Have them ask each other and the teacher questions as well.

Sample questions:

How do the chimpanzees protect themselves? What is a charging display? How do the chimpanzees greet a friend? What purposes does grooming serve? Where do the chimpanzees look for food? What do they eat? How do they play? Where do the infants stay? What other animals do they meet in the forest and how do the chimpanzees interact with them? How do the chimpanzees use objects as tools?

Why are the chimpanzees living in the national park lucky? How have humans harmed other chimpanzees? How has Jane Goodall learned about the life of chimpanzees living in the forests? How do you think Jane Goodall feels about chimpanzees?

  1. View segments from "Among the Wild Chimpanzees" videotape which is available from the National Geographic Society or the Jane Goodall Institute. The teacher should preview this video carefully selecting segments which are suitable for the age and capacity of students. Some of the video may be too violent for younger students. Note their physical characteristics, their social interactions, the ways in which they communicate using sounds and non-verbally, their eating habits, their grooming rituals. Describe their sleeping nests, their nomadic travels searching for food, how infants and youngsters are cared for.

Sample questions:

Who dominates chimp society? How do dominant chimps maintain their status? How is harmony maintained or restored? How do chimpanzees behave during a rainstorm? Note the ways in which chimpanzees make and use tools. Do the chimpanzees hunt and eat animals, and if so, which animals? What disease did many of the chimpanzees die from? What is the life expectancy of wild chimpanzees?

Discuss with students their impressions of chimpanzee society.

What, if anything, do they find surprising?

  1. Read and discuss other books about monkeys and apes from your school or public library. Have the students read a book, or selections from a book they found to their classmates. View photographs from these books.
  2. Take your students on a trip to the local zoo. Plan to spend your time at the monkey and ape exhibits exclusively. Take along some of the books featuring photographs of monkeys and apes.
    1. Have students attempt to identify the species of monkeys and apes seen in books in the classroom. For example, monkeys seen may include the proboscis, the baboon, the spider monkey, the capuchin and the howler monkey. You may see some of the following apes: the chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan and gibbon. Compare the actual animals to the photographs in the books you brought along. Note the animals' physical appearance including their tails or lack of tails, whether their nostrils are close together or far apart, whether or not they have opposable thumbs.
    2. Note the behaviors of monkeys and apes in the zoo. Which behaviors seem to be the same as those seen in books and videos. How many animals are in each grouping? How much space do the animals have? How has the zoo habitat been designed? Describe the social interactions of animals seen at the zoo?
    3. Have students bring along a notebook in which to record animals seen, their behaviors and the zoo habitat. Buy disposable cameras and have the students take photos. Be sure the students take photographs of the physical environment including trees and structures to climb on, and social groupings.
    4. When you have returned to the classroom compare behaviors habitats and social groupings seen in books and videos to that seen at the zoo. Which behaviors were the same? Which were different? Why may behaviors have been different?


Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which monkeys and apes are sometimes used by humans and the ethical issues involved.

MOTIVATION: Ask students how they think that monkeys or apes got to be in the zoo you visited. Have they ever seen monkeys and apes on television, and if so, what were they doing?


  1. Ask students to bring in newspaper or magazine articles about monkeys and apes. Information garnered might lead to the conclusion that monkeys and apes are sometimes used by people for our education and entertainment. Students may want to write to their local zoos to find out where the monkeys and apes living there came from. Does the circus come to your community? Are any monkeys or apes used there? What do they do as part of their performance?
  2. You may want to have older students write to the various organizations in our resource listing. Some students will know that monkeys and apes are used by humans in medical research. Dependent upon the age and grade level of your students, you may want to discuss various types of research monkeys and apes are used for. Students may also discover that monkeys and apes are sometimes killed to be eaten.
  3. Have students discuss and debate whether it seems right to have monkeys and apes in zoos and circuses. Make a classroom chart of the pros and cons. Depending upon the students' age and grade level you might also decide to discuss whether it seems right to hunt and eat monkeys and apes, to use them in medical research or to cut down the trees in the forest in which they live thereby destroying their habitat.
  4. Have the students write letters or postcards to museums, zoos and humane organizations for additional information. Even young students will receive information they can enjoy and appreciate from places such as the Jane Goodall Institute, and Friends of Washoe.


Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which some people have worked and continue to work to help monkeys and apes.


  1. Read books with students about people who have worked to help apes and monkeys. Include My Life With The Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall and Among the Orangutans- The Birute Galdikas Story as well as books about Dian Fossey. Discuss the photographs in these books with the students and read selected passages or paraphrase the text in words younger students can understand. Be sure to show them photographs of Louis Leaky. He is the man for whom Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas and Dian Fossey worked when they began studying apes. Discuss the fact that these individuals thought it was important to respect and protect apes. Older students can read additional books about people and organizations that have worked and continue to work to protect monkeys and apes.
  2. Have older students research the laws which have been passed to ban the hunting of endangered monkeys and apes, and the development of national parks to preserve what is left of their habitat. Students can also write to organizations working to help improve the lives of monkeys and apes through legislation and through retirement homes for animals who have been used in research.


  1. Develop a big-book or class book about monkeys and apes. Describe the New World and Old World monkeys and the apes.Include drawings or photographs.
  2. Develop a report about one species of non-human primates. Describe the physical characteristics of this species as well as ways in which members of this species communicate, defend themselves, find food and live in social groups in the wild.
  3. Develop a report about one species of non-human primates. Describe their life in the wild compared to their life in captivity. Discuss the pros and cons of human use of these animals.


  • Animalearn, 801 Old York Road, Suite # 204, Jenkintown, PA. 19046-1685 (215) 887-0816
  • Earthwatch, 680 Mount Auburn Street, PO Box 403N, Watertown, MA. (617) 926-8200
  • Friends of Washoe, Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, Central Washington University, 400 East 8th Avenue, Ellensburg, WA. 98926-7573, (509) 963-2244
  • Jane Goodall Institute, PO Box 599, Ridgefield, CT. 06877, (203) 431-2099
  • Gorilla Foundation, PO Box 620-530, Woodside, CA. 94062
  • International Primate Protection League, PO Box 766, Summerville, SC 29484, (803) 871-2280
  • L. S. B. Leakey Foundation, 77 Jack London Square, Suite M, Oakland, CA 94607- 3750, (510) 834-3636
  • National Geographic Society, 17th and M Street, N.W. , Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 857-7000
  • Orangutan Fountain International, 822 South Wellesley Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 90049, (310) 207-1655
  • Rainforest Action Network, 450 Sansome, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA. 94111.


  • Birnbaum, Bette, Jane Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, Steck-Vaugh, 1992
  • Gallardo, Evelyn, Among the Orangutans - The Birute Galdikas Story, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, 1993
  • Goodall, Jane, The Chimpanzee Family Book, Picture Book Studio, 1989
  • Lumley, Kathryn, Monkeys and Apes, Children Press, Grolier Publishers, 1982
  • Milton, Joyce, Gorillas, Gentle Giants of the Forest, Random House, 1997
  • Redmond, Ian, Eyewitness Book - Gorilla, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1995