Skip Discover Education Main Navigation
Skip Discover Education Main Navigation

Great ApesGreat-Apes

  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Apes are highly intelligent, often serious animals.
2. One of the ongoing discussions in behavioral research concerns whether apes are as intelligent as humans.
3. Well-designed experiments can give scientists information on which to base their comparisons of human and ape intelligence.


For this lesson, you will need:
Research materials about the great apes, including materials concerning research on ape intelligence
Computer with Internet access


1. Ask your students to describe how apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, are usually portrayed on TV or in movies.
2. Continue the discussion by asking students if they think that the media portray the great apes realistically, making the point that, rather than being cute or comical, apes are highly intelligent and often serious animals that have been observed to use tools in thoughtful ways, exhibit self-awareness, and demonstrate an empathic understanding of what other apes—or humans—are experiencing.
3. Go on to mention that one of the ongoing discussions in behavioral research is about whether apes are as intelligent as human beings.
4. Invite your students to imagine that they are researchers exploring the above questions. What kinds of experiments would they design in order to assess the intelligence of a gorilla and compare the gorilla's intelligence with that of a human?
5. Help students to formulate ideas by asking them what signs of intelligence they would look for and how they could compare the results they obtained with examples of human intelligence.
6. Ask each student to design four different experiments: one that will assess a gorilla's memory, one that will assess a gorilla's creativity, one that will assess a gorilla's ability to communicate, and one that will assess a factor that they determine themselves.
7. Before students begin designing their experiments, suggest they peruse the research materials you have provided or the Internet for background information. Also, review with students the requirements for a well-designed experiment, including the concept of a control group.
8. For each experiment students design, they should write one paragraph justifying why the experiment will work and one paragraph explaining how the experimental results could be compared to similar measures of human intelligence.
9. When their work is complete, you can conduct "scientific peer-review sessions" in which students review and critique each other's experimental ideas.

Back to Top


Adaptations for Older Students:
Have students find out about actual research concerning chimpanzees and gorillas (for examples, the work of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey) and experiments that have been done to assess apes' intelligence and ability to communicate.

Back to Top

Discussion Questions

1. Ancient bones were recently discovered in a quarry excavated in the African savanna. Discuss what skeletal evidence you could use to determine whether the bones were those of ancient apes. What evidence would probably exist to demonstrate that apes are humankind's closest primate ancestors?
2. Researchers are trying to learn how closely ape learning and behavior resemble human learning and behavior. One way they are achieving that end is by teaching apes sign language. Even though their experiments don't harm the apes in any way, some people still object to what the scientists are doing because apes don't always get to choose whether or not to participate in the experiments. Debate whether animal experimentation of this variety is ethically appropriate.
3. Describe the major characteristics of primates.
4. Many great novels and classic movies have primates as main characters: Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, King Kong, Curious George, etc. Analyze how apes are depicted in popular culture and compare those depictions to what you actually know to be true about primates.
5. What are the anatomical differences between monkeys and apes?
6. Discuss how data have been used to make connections between the great apes and the way we see ourselves as humans.

Back to Top


You can evaluate your students on their experiments and paragraphs using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points: experiments well-designed and described in detail; paragraphs clear, well-organized, and error-free
  • Two points: experiments fairly well designed but lacking a control group, paragraphs clear and well-organized with some errors
  • One point: experiments poorly designed; paragraphs acceptable in content but with numerous errors

Back to Top


Speaking of Apes
Because their vocal chords are different from those of humans, apes are unable to speak. Since the 1940s, however, numerous scientists have tried to determine whether meaningful communication between humans and apes might be possible through the use of a symbolic language. Their results have often seemed promising on the surface. One very famous gorilla named Koko, for example, seems to have learned how to "speak" with American Sign Language, but some scientists have hotly disputed the results of those studying Koko. Ask your students to use journal articles, magazines, news reports, textbooks, and the Internet to research Koko's sign language communications—not only what the scientists involved with the project claim to have discovered, but also the criticisms of their methods and results. (One good place to start is When their research is complete, ask them to write a series of questions that would be able to determine whether Koko can actually understand sign language. Then divide the students into pairs and have each pair of students critique each other's experimental methods. Conclude with a class discussion about the questions that students developed and the difficulties in assessing Koko's ability to communicate.

Animal Architecture
Much is being learned about the behavior, social interactions, cognitive abilities, and natural history of the great apes as scientists observe them in zoological settings around the world. Ask your students to research what goes into planning facilities for these complex and active animals, and then to plan their own facility. As they plan, they should consider ways in which zoos encourage animals to display their natural behaviors while preventing behavior problems and boredom. Once they have a design, they should use that design to build a scale model of their facility. When they are finished, have them present and explain the various features of their finished models to the class. As an extension, conduct an opinion poll to determine which model or combination of models students think might be most effective. As a final step, your students might submit their models to a local zoo for feedback.

Back to Top

Suggested Readings

The Great Apes: Our Face in Nature's Mirror
Michael Leach. Sterling Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Our closest living relatives are slowly being driven to extinction. Why? What can be done about it? As you read this poignant book, you'll learn about the true nature of these animals as they live and behave in their natural habitat.

Patricia Miller-Schroeder. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
Not the ferocious monsters depicted in the movies, gorillas are usually gentle giants, the largest of the great apes. This attractive book reveals all of the facts about gorilla lifestyle and behavior, but also goes beyond the basics by dispelling myths, discussing controversial issues, and encouraging the conservation of these mighty primates.

Back to Top


Connections: Primates
Teacher guides, lesson plans, activities, and a gallery of images and sounds. Science content standards are listed.

African Primates at Home
Includes photos, sounds, and information. Appropriate for grades K - 12.

Primate Info Net: Primate Images
Photographs and quicktime videos about a variety of apes. Some images are copyright cleared.

The Jane Goodall Institute
Includes information about chimpanzees' habitat, physical aracteristics, social organization, and communication.

Chimp World
A student site which provides chimpanzee facts, stories, and pictures.

Back to Top


Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    DNA
Definition: Any of various nucleic acids that are usually the molecular basis of heredity, are localized especially in cell nuclei, and are constructed of a double helix.
Context: Our DNA differs from that of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans by between 1.6 and 3.6 percent.

speaker    evolution
Definition: The theory that groups of organisms change with the passage of time, mainly as a result of natural selection.
Context: Early in their evolution, primates gave up this defensive arrangement, and their eye sockets rotated forward.

speaker    physique
Definition: The form or structure of an animal's body.
Context: The ape's physique is shorter and squatter than the monkey's.

speaker    primate
Definition: Any of an order of mammals comprising humans, apes, monkeys, and related forms.
Context: Apes are humans' closest primate ancestors.

speaker    savanna
Definition: A tropical or subtropical grassland containing scattered trees and drought-resistant undergrowth.
Context: Fossil ape skulls were found in the African savanna.

speaker    syntax
Definition: The way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses).
Context: Apes are capable of using abstract symbols and syntax to communicate.

Back to Top


This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: science
Knows about the diversity and unity that characterize life.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows evidence that supports the idea that there is unity among organisms despite the fact that some species look very different (e.g., similarity of internal structures in different organisms, similarity of chemical processes in different organisms, evidence of common ancestry).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows how organisms are classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on similarities that reflect their evolutionary relationships (e.g., shared derived characteristics inherited from a common ancestor; degree of kinship estimated from the similarity of DNA sequences).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows how variation of organisms within a species increases the chance of survival of the species and how the great diversity of species on Earth increases the chance of survival of life in the event of major global changes.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Benchmark 1:
Knows that organisms can react to internal and environmental stimuli through behavioral response (e.g., plants have tissues and organs that react to light, water, and other stimuli; animals have nervous systems that process and store information from the environment), which may be determined by heredity or from past experience.

Benchmark 2:
Knows ways in which species interact and depend on one another in an ecosystem (e.g., producer/consumer, predator/prey, parasite/host, relationships that are mutually beneficial or competitive).

Benchmark 3:
Knows that all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time make up a population, and all populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.

Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: science
Understands the basic concepts of the evolution of species.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows that the fossil record, through geologic evidence, documents the appearance, diversification, and extinction of many life forms.

Benchmark 6-8:
Knows basic ideas related to biological evolution (e.g., diversity of species is developed through gradual processes over many generations; biological adaptations—such as changes in structure, behavior, or physiology—allow some species to enhance their reproductive success and survival in a particular environment).

Benchmark 6-8:
Understands the concept of extinction and its importance in biological evolution (e.g., when the environment changes, the adaptive characteristics of some species are insufficient to allow their survival; extinction is common; most of the species that have lived on the Earth no longer exist).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows that natural selection leads to organisms that are well suited for survival in particular environments, so that when an environment changes, some inherited characteristics become more or less advantageous or neutral, and chance alone can result in characteristics having no survival or reproductive value.

Back to Top


Lesli Adler, a high school biology teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Back to Top