When people find out that I have studied evolution and behaviour, some tend to think that all that involved was looking at primates (an image I am totally ok with, even if it is wholly inaccurate). Because of this, I am often asked what my favourite ape and/or monkey is. I like this question for several reasons.
1. I love talking about animals, and could do so until the cows… Oh.
2. I love talking about myself.
3. I get to explain the difference between monkeys and apes. (Hint: Shoulders, brains and tails).
3. I get to to answer the question posed to me in the first place with: “BONOBOS!”
My answer often evokes this response:
When I speak to someone who has never heard of a bonobo, I experience a fluster of mixed emotions. The immediate feelings are best described as a rush of joy and exhilaration because I get to be the one to explain to this individual what a bonobo is. But afterwards, after I have calmed down from all the excitement of ape-chat, I get a bit sad, because it is a shame that these wonderful animals are not so well known. Especially since they are our closest living relatives: In fact, bonobos are as closely related to us as our much more popular relatives the chimpanzee.
Human reader, meet your cousin: The Bonobo.
Aren’t they awesome? They are. If you don’t believe me just now, you hopefully will by the time you have read ALL TEH SCIENTIFIC EVIDENZ throughout this article. Although known until fairly recently as “pygmy chimpanzees” (pan paniscus), bonobos differ from chimps in a few important and remarkable ways. First let us just take a second to appreciate their stylish hairstyle, complete with middle parting:
Their faces are also darker than the face of a chimp, and there is more sexual dimorphism present in bonobos. (This just means that the males are notably larger than the females).
However, one very interesting fact about bonobos is that they tend to be a very matriarchal species, meaning that the females are dominant over the males. In a 1995 article in Scientific American, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal described this revelation of the bonobo social structure as “a belated gift to the feminist movement” , posing a challenge to traditional, male-centered views of evolution.
There is one striking feature of bonobo society that they are particularly famous for. Those crazy apes just love having sex. They really, really do. They use sexual contact to say hello, to resolve conflict and just for the hooting hell of it. And we’re not just talking boring natural reproductive sex between and man and a lady bonobo, oh no. Female on female. Male on male. Between family members. Involving infants. Everyone gets involved.
Now, don’t let this make you feel all icky and squeamish. It’s important to remember that we should always try our best not to apply our human-centric views of behaviours to other species. Indeed, the sexual practices of bonobos would be frowned upon in our human society at best, and punishable by imprisonment or death at worst. But for bonobos, sex appears to be something very different than we know it to be. In fact, it may be the very key to their social life. Bonobos are known for their extremely low levels of violence and aggression. Sex seems to act as a social lubricant, releasing any tension that may be present between groups of individuals.
Despite the frequency with which they mate, bonobos do not have a higher birth rate than chimpanzees, with females giving birth to a single infant every five or six years. Clearly, all this sex is not entirely about reproduction for bonobos. The positions in which they copulate has also attracted much attention. Back in 1954, primatologists Eduart Tratz and Heinz Heck noticed that these odd apes did not always mount each other from behind, like most species of primate do. In fact, many of their sexual interactions appear chillingly human-like, with the bonobos adopting the missionary position, mating face to face.
Females often engage in a sexual practice called “GG rubbing”. This involves two females rubbing their clitorises together rapidly. During this engagement, the females often scream out, squeeze their thighs and shudder, implying they are experiencing orgasm. If you’re really keen, go over and watch this amazing video on Vanessa Woods’ blog.
Now, the bonobo has the image of being the vegetarian*, free-love hippy of the primate world and people are keen to draw parallels between us and them, since most of our evolutionary ancestry has until now been compared to the undeniably more aggressive chimpanzees. I am all too aware of and irritated by overly- anthropomorphic views and do like to keep discussions of animal behaviour as that: The behaviour of a particular species and the social systems and strategies which have evolved within that species. But it would be nice if people were at least more aware of the bonobo. As I said at the start, I wrote this post because I often come across people who have just never heard of these wonderful apes. Let us all recognise and appreciate our closest living relative (alongside the chimpanzee) in its own right and for the downright awesome creatures they are.
*Fruit accounts for about 57% of the bonobo diet and so they are often considered to be vegetarians, although they will consume small mammals opportunistically. It is true that they do not actively hunt their prey like chimps.
Bonobos are only found in the wild in the Democratic of Congo, a part of the world which has more than its fair share of political unrest. As a result of loss of habitat, bonobos are considered to be critically endangered (for more information on conservation efforts, click here).
De Waal, FBM. (1995) “Bonobo Sex and Society The behavior of a close relative challenges assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution“, Scientific American, vol 272, no 3, p 82-88
Primate InfoNet: http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/bonobo