Great apes are generally found in forested areas that are located on, or near, the equator. However, behavioral flexibility allows for some variation in habitat utilization that may be seen among populations of the same species. Availability of appropriate foods is the primary factor that limits the number of individuals that may occupy any given area. The range of great ape habitat includes primary forest, bamboo forest, lowland swamp, grasslands, and woodland savanna.

Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos utilize all levels of their habitat, but are primarily terrestrial. Each species is well adapted for moving and foraging in the trees, although the amount of time that each spends off the ground varies. Chimpanzees and bonobos, smaller and lighter than gorillas, utilize the trees throughout their lives. As male gorillas mature, their increased bulk prevents them from using the trees as easily, and they may spend the majority of their time on the ground. This difference is well illustrated by the fact that all great apes construct their night nests in the trees, except for adult male gorillas, which commonly build their sleeping nests on the ground.

Chimpanzees occur in very diverse habitats throughout their range. They may be found in primary or secondary forest, tropical rainforest, grasslands, or woodland savanna.

Bonobos are not found outside of primary or secondary forest. Lowland gorillas occur in primary and secondary forest as well, but also utilize marshy habitats, such as areas known as bais (pronounced "buys"). Bais are large, natural clearings within the forest that are brightly lit and populated by plant species that grow in very wet areas. Gorillas, as well as other forest species, consume these preferred foods, sometimes wading waist high in water to collect handfuls of the succulent plants. Mountain gorillas live at higher altitudes than chimpanzees, bonobos, or lowland gorillas, existing in montane and bamboo forest. Unlike these other species, they have much longer and thicker hair to protect them from the colder temperatures.

Orangutans possess a number of physical and behavioral traits that make them particularly well adapted for life in the trees. They live in the canopies of rainforests, montane forests, and lowland swamps, and are the only great apes that are primarily arboreal. Their distinctive anatomy allows them to perform all of their most essential behaviors, such as traveling, foraging, and mating, while suspended in the treetops. Orangutans are fully capable of movement on the ground,

An orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) drinks by scooping water with its hand and pouring it out, catching the stream in its mouth. (Photo by Tim Davis/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
Dominant mature male mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei) are referred to as silverbacks. (Photo by © Karl Ammann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

although it is awkward by comparison. This clear disadvantage restricts the range of habitats that they can successfully occupy when compared to the African apes.

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