Monkey vs ape: what’s the difference?

monkey vs ape differences

Have you ever wondered what the differences are between monkeys and apes? Before we get into what distinguishes monkey vs ape, it’s important to know that apes and monkeys are both primates.

There are more than 300 species of primates on Earth. This includes human beings, gorillas, and even lemurs. Primates share some core characteristics: having handshand-like feet and forward-facing eyes.

They also live in complex social groups. Most, with the exception of human beings, are agile tree-dwellers.

Even though all these species fall into the category of primates, the differences are vast, to say the least.

And while people often use the names monkeys and apes interchangeably, they are as different as if you would compare a human to a lemur!

When we are looking at the differences between monkey vs ape, it’s also important to know that the vine-swinging monkey is divided into two main groups; Old World monkeys and New World monkeys.

The term ‘old world’ refers to the areas of Europe, Africa and Asia. ‘New world’ refers to the Americas.

There are over 250 species of monkey but there are only about 20 species of ape. The apes are also divided into two groups, the lesser apes and the great apes.

Humans fall into the category of being one of the great apes. But ultimately we all form part of the primate family.

So, what is the difference between a monkey and an ape? Luckily, we have a list of differences to help clear up some of the confusion when it comes to these boisterous beasts.

Most monkeys have tails, apes don’t

Colombian red howler monkey hanging by its tail

One of the quickest and easiest ways to spot the difference between monkey vs ape is to look for a tail. Apes don’t have tails whereas most species of monkeys do. Interestingly, this has to do with evolution.

Although monkeys have been around for millions of years, apes are closer to humans in evolutionary and genetic terms. They have also evolved from needing a tail.

Monkeys use their tails to swing more easily through trees, but the function for apes was no longer necessary living in grassland environments. This helped them to evolve from their monkey ancestors.

Many New World monkeys have a prehensile tail. This means that they are able to grasp and hold objects like the branch of a tree.

This allows them to live high in tree canopies and even use their tail to hang while collecting food.

Most Old World monkeys have tails but they don’t have the same grasping ability. An example of this is the colobus monkey. They live high in the trees but climb without the assistance of their tail.

Most monkeys live in trees, apes are comfortable on the ground and the canopy

If you have ever come across a troop of squeaking and grunting monkeys, you will have noticed that they never stay on the ground for too long. Trees are where they find food, protection from predators and shelter.

Not only that, they travel freely from one tree to another (thanks in part to their tails). Their movement is somewhat hindered on the ground.

They walk with the entire sole of their feet touching the ground but with the palm of their hand raised. They almost never walk bipedally (on two legs).

When it comes to the great apes, there is only one species that lives more in the trees than on the ground, the orangutan – the only true tree-dwelling ape.

Orangutans have four long fingers and a uniquely short opposable thumb (different to other species). This actually aids them in their chosen tree lifestyle.

The sizes and shapes of monkey vs ape

Akarevuro, a huge silverback gorilla from Rwanda

Apes tend to be much larger than monkeys and they have bigger brains too. Monkeys have smaller skeletal structures, much the same as smaller, four-legged mammals, like cats and dogs.

Apes’ body shape and skeleton are much closer to us humans, including broad chests.

Gibbons, one of the lesser apes, are the only exceptions in size (found in southeast Asia). They are smaller than some larger monkey species.

The largest of the apes is the male gorilla, which can weigh up to 500 pounds. The largest monkey is the mandrill, and a mature male can weigh up to 119 pounds.

Monkeys and apes do share one thing, sexual dimorphism. It is a result of mating competitions typically between males.

This means that males and females of the same species have very different physical traits – particularly in size and colouration.

Physical differences of monkey vs ape

Apes rely on their sense of sight, whereas monkeys rely more on smell. Ok, this might not be the most obvious way to tell an ape from a monkey.

But if you use a keen eye, you can spot that the ape has a shorter, broader nose than its cousin.

In comparison, the nasal openings of monkeys are slanted.

Another great distinguishing physical feature is that unlike apes, monkeys have webbed feet.

Apes also have opposable thumbs like humans. Monkeys don’t.

Distinct differences in movement

White-handed gibbon hanging from a tree

Living in the trees, monkeys run, crawl and walk along the branches. Apes will swing from branch to branch.

Apes have evolved an especially mobile shoulder joint that allows them to swing like that. This form of movement is called brachiation.

The shoulder blades of apes are positioned dorsally. This means they are placed more towards the back of their body than on their sides and movement is less restricted.

Apes also have a much more upright body position compared to monkeys. It allows them to walk quite comfortably on their two hind legs.

Some monkeys can brachiate like apes, but their size and structure are more suited for their agility in the trees.

Intelligence of ape vs monkey

This is by far the most important difference between ape vs monkey. Monkeys are considered to have a far more primitive brain than apes.

All primates are social creatures and are considered intelligent. But we’re talking about a very specific kind of intelligence.

In our context, intelligence means the ability to solve, learn, plan, comprehend and communicate.

Studies performed on apes have revealed that they are incredibly intelligent based on their use of tools (even making their own), social interactions and their ability to learn.

Although monkeys communicate with each other, apes have more advanced cognitive and language skills.

They may not be able to speak the way humans do, but they can use sign language and body language to communicate with us. Just like humans, apes can think and problem solve.

One of the most remarkable examples of this was a female western lowland gorilla named Koko. She had a vocabulary of over 1000 ASL signs.

She could also understand about 2000 spoken English words. Her IQ was measured at a level of between 70 and 95 on a human scale. A normal human IQ on that same scale is 100.

Another example of ape intelligence are their incredible memory abilities.

In Japan, an experiment using a memory test was performed by humans and chimpanzees. Chimps completed their memory challenges much faster.

Locations on the planet

Male mandrill portrait

One of the best ways to distinguish monkey vs ape is that there are no apes found in the Americas.

So if you see them in the wild there, you’ll know immediately! Apes which are similar to Old World monkeys are found only in Africa and Asia.

Monkeys live in Central and South America as well as Europe, Africa and Asia.

An example of an Old World monkey would be the mandrill, which lives in Africa.

A tamarin would be an example of a New World monkey that lives in South America.

Visit Africa to encounter monkey and ape

Some of the most soul-stirring monkey and ape experiences are found in Africa.  

Why not book one of our gorilla tours in Africa to get started on ticking off all the species on your bucket list? The best way to see them is where they live wild and free.

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