BOOKS: Planet Ape

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2010:

Planet Ape
by Desmond Morris with Steve Parker
Octopus Publishing Group (2-4 Heron Quays, London E14 4JP, U.K.), 2009.
288 pages, hardcover. $ 49.95.

The DNA of the great apes and humans differs by only a hair.
Desmond Morris and Steve Parker in Planet Ape show us the
similarities between humans and the other great apes, especially in
behavior such as tool-making, using politics to gain community
influence, and killing other species for food. We differ most
prominently in that humans are bipedal, walking upright while other
great apes walk upright only for short distances. Also, humans lost
the heavy coat of fur characterizing other apes, and now wear
clothes. Well, most of us do.

Use of language and the power of complex thought also sets us
apart. Human mental development and that of the other apes
progresses similarly for several years, but the human brain
continues developing long after the mental growth of other apes is
Planet Ape examines gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans,
bonobos, and the four orders of gibbons, among whom there are 14
living species. A chart outlines the evolution of the primates.
From the earliest known primate ancestor, Purgatorius, about the
size of a rat, we progressed through Prosiminans, the Old World and
New World monkeys, gibbons, several ape species who long ago died
out, orangutans, and then the relatively recent splits from whom
the surviving offspring are gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and
Gorillas, the giants of the primate world, are actually
two closely related species, with either four or five subspecies,
depending on defininitons. Mountain gorillas have dark shaggy coats,
while the coats of western or lowland gorillas are gray, short and
coarse. Once spread over much of Africa, western gorillas now
occupy only parts of Angola, Congo, Cameroon, Central African
Republic and Equatorial Guinea.
Morris and Parker also discuss monkeys to some extent. At
least 200 monkey species live in Africa, Asia, and the tropical
forests of South America. Capuchins are among the most intelligent,
with a fine eye for food. Morris and Parker say they have been seen
cracking open crabs and shellfish with stones. Some have even
painted pictures, as have various great apes and elephants.
“There have always been tales about great hairy beings
lurking in the hidden corners of the world,” Morris and Parker open
in a chapter about the cryptozoological quest for more ape species.
Among the best known, Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, supposedly
lives in heavily forested parts of the Pacific Northwest–but there
is no scientifically credible evidence to prove Bigfoot’s existence,
and most sightings are easily ascribed either to black bears or
Reports of another hairy beast called the yeti surfaced in
Nepal during the 1920s. A journalist spiced up the story in 1930 by
calling the unknown creature the Abominable Snowman. Even the famed
Sir Edmund Hilary claimed to see the yeti’s footprints. Expeditions
sent to track down the yeti could not find the elusive creature. DNA
analysis of purported hair specimens has established that some of the
samples came from other Himalayan wildlife, but tests of two samples
collected in 2008 were inconclusive.
A discussion of ape anatomy features many sketches and
colorful pictures. The orangutan’s foot is so long, the authors
say, that it makes up almost one third of the length of the species’
entire hind limb, with toes four fifths the length of their fingers.
These adaptations reflect the orangutan’s largely tree-living,
limb-swinging lifestyle. Other great apes spend most of their time
on the ground.
A chapter on diet tells us what the great apes eat and how
they acquire their meals. Though chimpanzees hunt, and eat some
meat, they live mainly on fruit, flowers, nuts and yes, termites.
A gorilla packs away as much as 33 pounds of food per day, including
bamboo, wild celery, and tree bark.
Planet Ape concludes with a jolting look at how our distant
cousins are challenged to survive amid human transformation of their
habitat. Loggers and developers tear away their natural habitat,
poachers mercilessly slaughter them, and many more are collateral
victims of warfare. Morris and Parker praise the conservation
efforts promoted by the Jane Goodall Institute and other esteemed
organizations in the developing world. Perhaps they make a
difference, but often the habitat protected by conservationists
tends to become an isolated island, where the remaining apes must be
managed more or less like a zoo population, with no adjacent habitat
to expand into if their numbers increase.
Planet Ape is a gem of a book. It is easy to understand how
Jane Goodall got hooked on studying chimpanzees more than half a
century ago in Gombe. The great apes are fascinating creatures.
–Debra J. White

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