Featured Creature: Bonobos

Photo from Friends of Bonobos

What long misnamed creature develops complex social structures and offers many lessons for the human species? 

The Bonobo!

Photo from Friends of Bonobos

The bonobo, or Pan paniscus, is a small primate native to the Congo. For a long time, it was known as the “pygmy Chimpanzee” and thought simply to be a smaller type of chimp. However, bonobos comprise their own species, and possess several unique characteristics distinguishing them from chimps and other primates. 

Bonobos have a lifespan ranging from 20 to 40 years. They spend time foraging for food in tree canopies, on the ground, and around water bodies. They have many sources of food, including fruits, insects, fish, and small mammals, including monkeys, hyrax (a small rabbit-like animal), and even small antelope. 

Bonobo mothers raise their young until they are about four years old, and sons stay close to their mothers their entire lives. This bond remains strong, and the social rank of a mother will transfer to her son. Female bonobos hit puberty at about five years old, but tend not to have a first child until they are fourteen, after which they give birth around every five years. 

Dynamic social life

Bonobos are known for their complex social structures, in which females take charge. They’re not the only primate with an important mother-child relationship (recall the orangutan mothers Tania spotlighted). However, the vital role of female bonobos extends beyond the family – it structures the social hierarchy of the entire community. Though female bonobos are physically smaller than the males, they band together in numbers to keep order, relying on their close social bonds. The most high ranking member of any troop is always female and relationships among females determine rank, making this matriarchal society unique among apes. 

Bonobos have what is known as a “fission-fusion” society. They are animals that live together in numbers, but their societies only increase in size up to a point. After all, though there is strength in numbers, at a certain point multitudes become unwieldy. So in fission-fusion societies, once the group size increases sufficiently, smaller groups will break off to become independent and seek their own territory. 

In the case of bonobos, young females leave the community they were born and raised in to find new groups and settle down in one. In particular, older females in the community play a key role in these decisions, and they are the important individuals to forge relationships with when a bonobo joins a new group.  

There has also been fascinating research and observation done on the importance of sex in the social lives of bonobos. They use sexual behavior as a social glue, a means of reconciliation and diffusion of tension, and a replacement for aggression. It is a frequent and casual part of social behavior, often used for bonding as bonobos join new communities or when situations arise that could produce conflict, like finding new food. When it comes down to it, bonobos are lovers, not fighters. 

As social creatures, young bonobos play with each other and communicate with their voices, even before developing a full range of bonobo speech. They use a short high-pitched vocalization called “peeping”, which they use across a range of contexts in daily activities. The functional flexibility of this ‘bonobo baby talk’ that researchers observed has helped scientists develop theories about the evolution of speech.

Photo from the NYTimes by Jingzhi Tan

Lessons in humanity 

Research in speech and early life development is not the only way we can learn from bonobos’ example. These creature cousins of ours are noted for their socially supportive behavior. They have been observed to exhibit empathy and generosity, sharing food with strangers in research experiments even when there is no reward for themselves. 

Bonobos in captivity have been observed to have highly social births, in which many individuals assist the birthing mother, an analog to midwifery that has not been observed in other species. Another remarkable behavior was observed in the wild, where two female bonobos adopted infants from a different social group and took them in as their own. 

Bonobos’ openness and tendency toward friendly behavior is speculated to help them maintain their fission-fusion societies, making it easier for new members to integrate into existing groups. Often we tend to marvel when other animals show traits we consider “human” – like empathy, generosity, ingenuity, and intelligence. In exhibiting these behaviors, these creatures aren’t acting like us, they are acting like themselves. They demonstrate the many ways in which intelligence, love, collectivity, and other virtues extend beyond our single species. Indeed, we have much to learn from broader communities of life, including how to coexist sustainably with our fellows.

Portrait of a young Bonobo from the Nkala group in the forest canopy. Nkala village, Malebo, DRC (Photo from World Wildlife Fund by Karine Aigner)

Continuing Under Threat

Unfortunately, bonobos are critically endangered due to human activities, particularly habitat destruction and poaching. They reside only within the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and years of civil unrest within the DRC makes it difficult to even establish with certainty the size and changes of bonobo populations, while creating an environment that poachers take advantage of. 

There are efforts underway to help protect and nurture these creatures in the wild, like the activities of Friends of Bonobos who work to stop the bushmeat trade and help trafficked and orphaned bonobos make it back into the wild. Many people understand just how precious bonobos are. The more we can appreciate the value of these creatures, the intact ecosystems that sustain them, and the intricate webs of life that tie us together, the greater our chance for a healthy home planet for all of us. 

February 14 marks World Bonobo Day, in addition of course to Valentine’s Day. Let these brilliant bonobos be a reminder that love exists in many forms and in many species.  

By Maya Dutta