Bonobos: “R-rated” Apes

It used to be that boys peeked in National Geographic magazine to see topless tribal women in Africa and South America.  Now the magazine has an “R-rated” article.  And the subject of the article is:  bonobos, what else?  Bonobos are a close relative of the chimpanzee, but boy-oh-boy are they different.

Young Bonobos

Young Bonobos

According to the NG article (Mar 2013)–written by David Quammen:

The bonobo, in case you haven’t heard, carries a reputation as the “make love, not war” member of the ape lineage, far lustier and bellicose than its close cousin, the chimpanzee. . . .

The bonobo’s head is smaller in proportion to its body than a chimp’s, its physique more slender, and its legs longer.  But in overall size, both male and female adult bonobos fall generally within the same range as female chimps.

The major distinctions between bonobos and chimps are behavioral, and most conspicuous do involve sex.  Both in captivity and in the wild, bonobos practice a remarkable diversity of sexual interactions.  According to [Frans de] Waal, [Dutch-American biologist]:  “Whereas the chimpanzee shows little variation in the sexual act, bonobos behave as if they have read the Kama Sutra. . . ” [This paragraph then becomes very descriptive.]

Sexiness isn’t the only big difference between bonobos and chimps, though its probably linked to other differences, either as cause or as effect.  Females not males, hold the highest social rankings, which they seem to achieve by affable social networking rather than by forming temporary alliances and fighting, as male chimpanzees do.

In the wild, bonobos can only be found in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire), in the vast expanse south of the Congo River.  They are classified as endangered, and though protected by Congolese law, they continue to suffer from the standard problems of:  hunting for bush meat and habitat loss.  Perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 bonobos remain in the wild.

Some researchers including Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth, a married couple based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, feel the sexiness is overblown.

“I could show Frans [de Waal] some of the behaviors that he would not think possible in bonobos,” Hohmann said.  Infrequent sex, for instance.  Yes, there’s a great diversity of sexual acts in the bonobo repertoire, but “a captive setting really amplifies all these behaviors.  Bonobo behavior in the wild is different–must be different–because bonobos are very busy making their living, search for food.

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