The bonobo, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee, is part of the great ape family and was the last member to be discovered. They were considered to be a subspecies of chimpanzees until 1933, when they were officially recognised as a separate species. Now, scientists believe that the two diverged paths over 1.7 million years ago.
Despite their genetic similarities to chimpanzees, bonobos display differing behaviours and societal habits. They live in fission-fusion societies, which means larger groups split up to forage before rejoining later that day. These groups are led by older females who typically get the first helpings of food and decide when and where the group travels.
The most well-known facts about bonobo apes are connected to their sexual practices. Bonobos are known to trade sexual acts for food or favours, using sex to both solve conflicts and deepen their relationships with each other. This behaviour has been observed between many different bonobo pairings, including same-sex pairings, and even between juveniles and adults. As far as scientists can tell, sex plays an integral role in peacekeeping and coexistence within bonobo society.
Despite this, reproduction rates in bonobos are similar to that of chimpanzees and other great apes. Females bear one infant every five years or so with a gestation period of around eight months. One fascinating and unique behaviour recorded in bonobos happens during birth: other females have been known to gather around the pregnant bonobo and assist in the birth, similar to human midwives.
Mothers look after their offspring until they’re around four years old. Males might stay with their mothers their entire lives, while females find a troop of their own when they reach maturity. While fathers generally don’t participate in child-rearing, they do remain within the group and provide food and protection for all of its members.
Importantly, bonobo apes play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem within their rainforest habitat. Because they feed on fruit and vegetation, they distribute seeds and nutrients around the forest. Bonobos’ plant-based diet also reduces competition between vegetation and helps more sunlight reach the forest floor, supporting the 1,500 to 2,000 plant species that grow in the swamp and evergreen rainforests of the Congo Basin.
What is a bonobo's scientific name?
The origins of the name ‘bonobo’ are unknown, but there is one theory that it could be a misspelling of the Congolese town of Bolobo. This name was written on a crate carrying a bonobo to Germany in the 20th century, and scientists later advocated for the name, assuming that it was how local communities referred to the species.
Are bonobos endangered?
Bonobos are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and have been since 1996. There is too little data to accurately estimate their population size, but their numbers are likely declining.
Their survival is threatened by poaching, civil unrest, habitat loss, and disease. These threats are especially dangerous because bonobos live in such a small region and reproduce very slowly.
Where do bonobos live?
Bonobo apes are only found in one place on the planet: the lowland rainforests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as the Congo Basin. There are roughly 156,211 square kilometres of suitable bonobo habitat in the region, within which four bonobo strongholds have been identified.
These lowland rainforests support a diverse range of vegetation with swamp forests in the north and semi-evergreen rainforests and grasslands in the south. The area receives around 2,000 millimetres of rainfall per year with an average maximum temperature of around 30 degrees Celsius.
Bonobos face significant threats to their survival, which are made more severe by their highly limited range and slow reproduction rates. The most pressing issues include poaching, civil unrest, habitat loss, and disease.
The demand for bushmeat is currently increasing, and bonobos are one of the many animals hunted as a luxury food product. Although some local communities like the Bongando have a traditional taboo that prevents them from hunting bonobo apes, non-local poachers travel to the Congo Basin to supply the bushmeat trade with bonobo meat.
Unfortunately, civil unrest in the region has enabled poachers to hunt bonobos—even in legally protected areas like Salonga National Park. Not only has the military sanctioned the hunting and killing of bonobos, but the conflict has increased the availability of firearms, making hunting easier.
Conflict between humans has also resulted in the partial destruction of bonobos’ habitat, threatening bonobos’ survival further.
Even though bonobos only occupy a small area of the Congo Basin, their habitat isn’t entirely protected. Only Salonga National Park is. In the other areas, human activities, including agriculture, logging, and road construction, have destroyed the forest, decreasing the size of bonobos’ habitat.
Recently, oil palm plantations have also been set up in bonobo habitats, as 99.2% of the area is suitable for growing the oil-producing tree. If these plantations continue to spread, it could have catastrophic consequences for the bonobo.
Bonobos are susceptible to human-borne respiratory viruses and natural pathogens like Ebolavirus. If bonobo communities and human populations live in close proximity, these viruses can spread from man to animal.
As bonobos have no way to fight these viruses, they are often fatal. And because there is such a high rate of physical contact between bonobos, the viruses spread easily within bonobo populations too, leading to more fatalities.
What is a bonobo?
Bonobo primates are very close cousins to the chimpanzee and look almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Their biggest physical differences include the bonobo’s more slender body, longer legs, and rounder head.
In terms of behaviour, however, bonobos and chimpanzees are significantly different. Female bonobos are at the top of their social hierarchy, whereas males are dominant among chimpanzees and all other great apes.
What do bonobos eat?
Bonobos primarily eat fruit and vegetation but will supplement their diet with invertebrates like caterpillars and earthworms. They gather most of their food from trees but usually climb down to the ground to eat and share it.
Do bonobos eat meat?
Bonobos can eat meat, such as bats, flying squirrels, or small antelopes, but it’s very rare.
It’s often thought that bonobos hunt other mammals, like monkeys, because their chimpanzee cousins do, but bonobo apes have only ever been observed grooming and playing with them.
Do bonobos have tails?
Bonobos are part of the ape family and therefore do not have tails. If a primate doesn’t have a tail, it’s an ape, and if it does have a tail, it’s likely to be a monkey.
Are bonobos violent?
Bonobos are significantly less violent than chimpanzees. While scientists have observed warfare, murder, and petty bickering in chimpanzees, bonobo culture appears to be more peaceful. Incidents of infanticide and cannibalism that have been observed in chimps have also never been recorded in bonobos.
Bonobos appear to exchange sex for favours and food, while also using it to settle conflict or relieve tension. Sexual behaviour and social behaviour go hand in hand, with bonobo apes engaging in sexual contact with a range of partners, irrelevant of sex or age.
Are bonobos chimpanzees?
Modern science classifies bonobos and chimpanzees as two different species which diverged around 1.7 million years ago. However, this wasn’t always the case. Until 1933, bonobos were thought to be a subspecies of chimpanzees and often referred to as “pygmy chimps” because of their slightly smaller bodies. Bonobos and chimps are roughly the same height, but bonobos are more slender with a narrower chest and longer legs.
Are bonobos apes?
Yes, bonobos are part of the ape superfamily, alongside chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, humans, and gibbons (which are part of a separate subfamily).
Apes have more complex brains than monkeys, but the easiest way to tell an ape from a monkey is to look for a tail — monkeys have them, and apes do not.
Are humans closer to chimps or bonobos?
Despite their genetic similarity, chimpanzees and bonobo apes display many differing behaviours, while humans share some behaviours with both species.
How long do bonobos live?
Why are bonobos endangered?
Bonobos live in a very small area in the Congo Basin rainforests and are not found anywhere else. This means that agricultural development and human settlements in the area result in severe habitat loss. Bonobo apes are unfortunately also poached for bushmeat, suffer the side effects of civil unrest, and are vulnerable to human diseases, which spread easily as human settlements expand into bonobo habitat.
How many bonobos are left?
Estimating the size of the bonobo population is difficult because only 30% of its historic range has been surveyed. Very rough estimates based on the four known bonobo strongholds suggest a minimum population of 15,000-20,000 individuals, but this is too uncertain to use as an official number. However, it is certain that their population is currently decreasing.
IFAW supports the rescue and rehabilitation of bonobos at Friends of Bonobos, an organisation that operates the only bonobo sanctuary and release site in the world, called Lola ya Bonobo. The sanctuary is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One bonobo they rescued is Ikoto, a three-month-old bonobo who was a victim of wildlife trafficking. Ikoto is the youngest bonobo ever cared for at Lola ya Bonobo, and his recovery required extensive, round-the-clock attention, including care and affection from a surrogate mother.