Animals

Bonobos

by Marcia Malory

The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is a great ape.  Bonobos and chimpanzees are the closest living relatives of human beings. Together bonobos and chimpanzees make up the genus Pan.

In the wild, bonobos can be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the forests of the Congo River Basin.

Bonobos resemble chimpanzees very closely. However, a bonobo has longer hair, a smaller head and a flatter face than a chimpanzee. Bonobos have red lips.

A bonobo's body is slimmer than a chimpanzee's body, with longer legs than a chimpanzee has.

The first two toes on a bonobo's foot are webbed.

Like chimpanzees, bonobos walk on their knuckles. Sometimes they will walk on two legs. Bonobos are more likely to walk bipedally than chimpanzees are.

BonoboBonobos can climb trees and brachiate (swing from tree to tree).

The average bonobo male weighs about 99 pounds (45 kilograms) and is about 3 feet 11 inches (119 centimeters) tall. The average bonobo female weighs about 73 pounds (33 kilograms) and is about 3 feet 7 inches (111 centimeters) tall.

Bonobos mostly eat fruit. They also eat other plant parts, insects, worms and mammals.

They are endangered because of habitat loss, hunting and the sale of babies as pets.

Social Structure

Bonobos live in large social groups.  These groups break up into smaller subgroups that travel together looking for food.  This is known as a fission-fusion society. Chimpanzees also have fission-fusion societies.

In bonobos, female-female and male-female social bonds tend to be stronger than male-male social bonds.

While female chimpanzees are subordinate to males, in bonobo society, females are dominant.

Males usually stay with their mother's social group when they become adults.  The social ranking of a male and his mother are interconnected.   Having a mother with a high social ranking will help to improve a young male's position in the group.  As both the male and his mother get older, his rise in social ranking will help to improve her social position.

A female will leave her social group and join another one after she reaches puberty.

Sex and Reproduction

Sex plays a very important role in bonobo society.  It is used as a way to diffuse conflicts.

Male-male and female-female sex is very common and sexual activity includes acts outside of intercourse, such as genital rubbing.

Bonobos have sex to avoid fighting over food or other objects.

When two bonobos have a disagreement about something, after a threat display, they will resolve their differences by having sex.

When a female enters a new social group after leaving her birth group, she will engage in genital rubbing with the other females in the group as a way of integrating herself into the new group.

Both male and female bonobos can have many sexual partners and mating takes place throughout the year. A female will have sex with any male in the group except her own son.

A bonobo female usually has one child at a time.

Parental care is provided by the mother.

Bonobo babies nurse until they are about four years old.

A bonobo reaches adulthood when it is about fifteen.

Bonobo Intelligence

Like all great apes, bonobos are self aware.

Bonobos have been taught to use language.

Kanzi, a bonobo who was born in 1980, was the first non-human ape to learn to use language spontaneously, without formal training.  He developed language skills the same way that a human child would.

When Kanzi was a baby, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach his adoptive mother, Matata, to communicate using lexigrams - symbols that represent words.  Kanzi stayed in the laboratory with his mother, but he was considered too young to be taught language.

Matata was never able to learn how to us lexigrams. However, when she was sent away to a breeding program for a short time, Kanzi spontaneously began using the lexigrams, asking for food and asking where his mother was.

Kanzi's half-sister, Panbanisha, who was born in 1985, also uses lexigrams.  She can draw lexigrams with chalk.

Bonobos in captivity use tools.

Kanzi manufactures Oldowan-style stone tools and can build a fire.