What the Hell is a Bonobo?

I read recently that humans share 98 percent of their genetic material with chimpanzees and bonobos.  But I had never heard of a bonobo.

There are four varieties of great apes (not counting humans):  gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.  I have had the pleasure to briefly observe gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans in the wild.  And all three experiences were truly amazing.  But I’ve never seen a bonobo in its natural habitat, or in a zoo for that matter. 

Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos live in highly-social groups in central Africa, while orangutans live more solitary lives on the island of Borneo (southeast Asia).  Chimpanzees and bonobos are actually closer genetically to humans than they are to gorillas.

Great Ape Family Tree

Because the chimpanzees and bonobos are not proficient swimmers, the formation of the Congo River 1.5-2 million years ago may have lead to their speciation.  Bonobos live south of the river, and thereby separated from the ancestors of the chimpanzee, which live north of the river.

Bonobos are found in only one country:  the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a resource rich nation that has been continually beset with rebellions, outlaw gangs, and civil wars.  There is no reliable information on the size of the bonobo population, but it is believed to be somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 individuals.

In a few way, bonobos are more similar to humans than chimpanzees, for example: 

  • in the proportions of their limbs,
  • in the narrower trunk and
  • in the smaller canine teeth. 

When observed in captivity they also walk bipedally more frequently than chimps.

The bonobos are best known for their very active sexual behavior:

They make a lot of love, and do so in every conceivable fashion.  Beyond that, they are very loving too, showing care and compassion for each other in many ways.  Sex in bonobo society transcends reproduction, as it does in humans.  It serves as a way of bonding, exchanging energy and sharing pleasure.

Sex permeates the fabric of bonobo society, weaving through all aspects of daily life.  It serves an important function in keeping the society together, maintaining peaceful, cooperative relations.  Besides heterosexual contact, both male and female bonobos engage in same-sex encounters. . . .

Unlike other apes, bonobos frequently copulate face-to-face, looking into each other’s eyes.  When bonobos groups meet in the forest, they greet each other, bond sexually, and share food instead of fighting.  Likewise, sexual activity, grooming, or sharing food eases almost any conflict between bonobos.

According to wikipedia, “Bonobos are perceived to be matriarchal; females tend to collectively dominate the [larger] males by forming alliances and us[ing] sexuality to control males.”

There is probably a lesson in this for humans, but I don’t think I’m ready at this point to hypothesize.

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6 Responses to What the Hell is a Bonobo?

  1. gold price says:

    Ulindi, a female bonobo at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany, has had her genome sequenced, researchers report today (June 13), making bonobos the last of the great apes to have their genomes mapped. The resulting genetic code may help unlock the secrets that separate humans — physically, intellectually and behaviorally — from our closest primate relatives.

  2. gold price says:

    Bonobos are great apes, along with chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. Because we share so many characteristics with these simian species, some scientists contend that humans should be classified as apes too. Indigenous people who have dwelled among bonobos in the Congo forest have many legends about how bonobos and man were brothers in the distant past. They tell stories about how bonobos showed people what foods to eat in the forest, how a bonobo saved a man who needed help, how bonobos themselves are trying to become human.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    On a side note, one reviewer of the movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” noted the lack of bonobos in the movie. “Granted, even Goodall forgets our other closest relative [bonobos] sometimes. And I’ll quote a professor, “If bonobos took over they’d be all like: ‘Touch my penis, sex slave!’ Yeah, might push that PG13 to R. While I buy that hyper-intelligent chimps might rebel for power, bonobos would rather organize orgies and elect Hillary Clinton (girl power).”

  4. rogerdhansen says:

    According to Kim M. Clark, doctor of optometry in Portland, OR (SLTrib, 7 Oct 2012): “Moreover, biologists report that ‘Homosexuality has been documented in more than 450 species of vertebrates signaling that sexual preference is biologically determined in animals.’ Nearly all Bonobos are ‘bisexual and . . . about two thirds of the homosexual activities are amongst females.'”

  5. Pingback: Bonobos: “R-rated” Apes | Tired Road Warrior

  6. Pingback: Humans have feet; chimps have only hands | chrisgraves2

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