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How similiar are chimps and humans? April 30, 2010

Posted by Kyle in Behavior, Biology, Ecology, Evolution.

Many researchers are interested in what makes chimps and humans different, as well as the similarities. A recent article on Science Daily highlighted two studies published in Current Biology on how chimpanzees deal with death.  The first study shows that chimps may have a more developed awareness of death than once thought.  Researchers observed how chimps responded to dying and dead chimps of their group.  In some cases, mothers would continue to carry and care for young that had died.  Researchers also observed how a group of chimpanzees responded to a dying female in the days leading up to her death.  They found that there were similarities between the chimps behavior towards the female and human behavior when an elderly relative is dying.

Chimp mother carrying mummified infant

Since chimps are our closest evolutionary relative, it makes sense that they would share some things in common with us.  In the second study researchers found that mothers would continue to care for their dead young, even months after the infant had died. As time went on, the mothers slowly began to separate from the corpses. These observations seem to indicate that there is a close bond between mother chimps and their young.  As Dora Biro of the University of Oxford points out, chimps resemble humans in many of their cognitive functions.  How chimps react to death and are affected by it could shed light on the evolutionary origins of human comprehension of death.

The similarities between humans and chimps starts with DNA.  Humans and chimps have very similar genomes. In fact, over 98% of a chimps DNA is the same as a humans, with most of the differences being in non coding regions. Another article on Science Daily addresses this similarity. According to Katherine Pollard, assistant professor at the UC Davis Genome Center and the Department of Statistics, the differences between humans and chimps is in how we use our proteins, not in the actual proteins.  Pollard and other researchers found “highly accelerated regions” of DNA when comparing the DNA of humans and chimps. These highly accelerated regions were areas of DNA that had evolved, however only a few of these regions contained genes coding for proteins. Researchers believe that one region may contain a gene important for brain development. As different as chimps and humans appear, there are more similarities than most people realize.

There are many researchers that have highlighted key similarities and differences in humans and chimps. With more research comes more interesting discoveries linking us to our evolutionary relatives. Some other interesting similarities have been pointed out recently, such as the understanding of fire as well as culture among different groups of chimps. More interesting articles on current research can be found on Science Daily.


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