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The Bonobo: Our Most Human Primate Cousin - Yellow Magpie

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Published on April 13th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


The Bonobo: Our Most Human Primate Cousin


Though there are many intelligent animals besides humans, it is the great apes that we share the closest affinity with. Out of this group of animals that includes the common chimpanzee, gorillas and orangutans, one stands alone.

Eerily human and resplendently social, the bonobo is arguably the closest animal to us.

Facially Human

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between bonobos (a type of chimpanzee) and their cousin, the common chimpanzee. Upon closer examination the differences are quite stark. Bonobos are more slender, they have longer legs and the females have more pronounced breasts and genitalia.

Bonobo Termite Fishing With A Stick

But all of these differences miss the most obvious characteristic, their faces. Bonobos have flatter facial features than chimpanzees, their mouth does not protrude as far and they appear much more human-like.

Fruity Diet

Bonobos are primarily fruit eaters. Their frugivorous diet is not there sole food and they supplement this with leaves, fungi, eggs and smaller animals.

There have also been cases of Bonobo cannibalism. According to BBC News, two primatologists, Dr Gottfried Hohmann and Dr Andrew Fowler, observed a mother eating her dead infant at Lui Kotale, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


A Complex Social Order

Bonobo society is rich, diverse and surprisingly serene. It is also complex with different behaviours that we would not normally associate with animals. Bonobo communities are generally tranquil places. Conflict within a Bonobo community is rare and most disputes are settled with sexual activity rather than fighting.

Unlike, the common chimpanzees, Bonobo females have a very high status within the community. Although it is believed that the leaders of bonobo groups are males, females are treated equally with their male counterparts. It is this unique aspect of bonobo life that has made bonobos famous.

Young Bonobos

Their peace-loving nature is also something that gathers wide-spread attention but it doesn’t necessarily apply to bonobos that are from different tribes or those in captivity due to the policies of some zoos.

The behaviour of bonobos to those outside of their group can be dangerous and in some cases lethal. This is particularly true of lone males and there have been cases reported of marauding groups of males forming patrols and seriously injuring trespassers. Some of these patrols have resulted in bonobo males being killed.

It is thought that the practice of separating mothers from their male offspring, which some zoos practice, can contribute to aggression and fighting in captive bonobo groups.

Famous Sexual Displays

One of the most well-known facets of bonobo life is their sexual activity. Bonobos are polyamorous and they are thought to be the only other animal, besides humans, to engage in a plethora of sexual acts. Some of these include face-to-face genital sex, tongue-kissing, and oral sex.

Bonobos Photo By Greg Hume

What’s more it appears that on occasions Bonobos engage in same-sex activities. Although sexual activity between females is the most common, sexual behaviour between males does occur occasionally. One particular act that males engage in, has been dubbed ‘penis fencing’ by scientists studying the bonobo.

A Mirror Onto Ourselves

As with all the higher mammals, one of the most obvious reason why we are fascinated by bonobos is their closeness to us. Like all the highly intelligent animals, which includes, amongst others, the common chimpanzee, gorillas, dolphinselephants and magpies, the bonobo possesses self-awareness and has successfully passed the self-recognition mirror test.

One bonobo in particular, Kanzi, has been taught over 3,000 spoken words. He has also been taught how to communicate with people using a specially designed keyboard. Thus he can respond to sentences and understands the meaning of many words. Like other animals, bonobos can learn from other members of their species and can pick up how to do tasks simply from observation alone.

Kanzi The Bonobo

Bonobos are a rich and highly diverse animal. Their social order is complex and it appears that females, unlike many other animals, are held in special esteem by bonobo society. It is these fascinating aspects that have captured our hearts and minds. No doubt, even more revelations about the intelligence and complexity of this particular chimpanzee await future discovery.

Vital Statistics

  • Bonobo males typically weigh 43 kilograms (95 lbs) with the females averaging 37 kg (82 lbs).
  • Both the male and female are generally over 70 to 80 cm (just three to four inches under three feet) in height with the males being slightly taller.
  • Bonobos can live up to 40 years in captivity. Their expected lifespan in the wild is not known.
  • They are found exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo and it is mainly because of this that they are in danger of extinction.

Highly Recommended Get The Book Through Amazon

For further insight into the common chimpanzee check out Yellow Magpie’s The Chimpanzee: A Creature That We Continually Underestimate.

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape by Frans De Waals seeks to draw attention to the bonobo and it addresses why the common chimpanzee gets so much attention.

Full of fascinating insight, that could only be gleamed by someone that devoted their life to studying chimpanzee behaviour, the book is a must read for anyone who wants to delve further into the subject.

You can obtain Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape here from Amazon.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape here.

For those living in Canada you can obtain Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape from here.

For Germany: Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.

For France: Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.

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