The bonobo, Pan paniscus, is a great ape and one of two species making up the genus Pan; the other is Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee. The bonobo is distinguished by relatively long legs, pink lips, dark face and tail-tuft through adulthood, and parted long hair on its head. The bonobo is found in a 500,000 km2 area of the Congo Basin.
One can argue that the bonobo is the most scientifically valuable animal on earth. But tragically it is on the brink of extinction. It was the last of the apes to be identified (discovered) by scientists, only in the late 1920s, and only on the basis of bones in a museum cabinet. It was the last of the apes to be located in nature, in the 1970s, so that studies could begin on natural populations. Tragically, now that we are at last beginning to understand how very unique and extremely important this cousin is, we may be about to lose it.
Sex, it turned out, is the key to the social life of the bonobo. The first suggestion that the sexual behavior of bonobos is different had come from observations at European zoos. Wrapping their findings in Latin, primatologists Eduard Tratz and Heinz Heck reported in 1954 that the chimpanzees at Hellabrun mated more canum (like dogs) and bonobos more hominum (like people). ... The bonobo's humanlike sexuality needed to be rediscovered in the 1970s before it became accepted as characteristic of the species.
Bonobos become sexually aroused remarkably easily, and they express this excitement in a variety of mounting positions and genital contacts.
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, and even group sex occurs. Female-female contact, or "GG-rubbing," is actually the most common.
The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations--and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobo's rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.
Bonobos are female dominant, with females forming tight bonds against males through same-sex socio-sexual contact that is thought to limit aggression. In the wild, they have not been seen to cooperatively hunt, use tools, or exhibit lethal aggression.
Their diet consists mainly of plant products including fruit, seeds, sprouts, leaves, flowers, bark, stems, pith, roots, and mushrooms. Though the majority of their diet is fruit (57%), bonobos are also known to consume small mammals, insect larvae, earthworms, honey, eggs, and soil (Kano 1992; Bermejo et al. 1994). Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos do not actively hunt mammalian prey but feed on it opportunistically (White 1996). At one study site, bonobos have been observed washing off their food before eating (Bermejo et al. 1994).
Bonobos are one of the most endangered species and there are around 10,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, all in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. They share 98 to 99 per cent of their DNA with us.
Bonobos walk upright somewhat more easily than the chimps can. Still, walking on all fours is less tiring for both bonobos and chimps.
Bonobos are sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees even though they are about the same size as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Overall, they have a more gracile, or slender, build than chimpanzees. They exhibit moderate sexual dimorphism with adult males weighing about 39 kg (86.0 lb) and, on average, measuring 730 to 830 mm (2.40 to 2.72 ft) tall while adult females weigh about 31 kg (68.3 lb) and are about 700 to 760 mm (2.3 to 2.49 ft) tall (Rowe 1996).
Also called the pygmy chimp, the bonobo is slightly smaller than the common chimpanzee. Sharing more than 98% of its DNA with humans, the bonobo is our closest living relative. Like humans, bonobos live in family groups and are highly intelligent. They often stand upright on two feet as we do. Bonobos are capable of making and using tools, a characteristic that once distinguished humans from other animals.
Kanzi learned to combine these symbols in regular ways, or in what linguists call "proto-grammar." Once, Savage-Rumbaugh says, on an outing in a forest by the Georgia State University laboratory where he was raised, Kanzi touched the symbols for "marshmallow" and "fire." Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.