2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mammals


Conservation status

Endangered (EN)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Pan
Species: P. paniscus
Binomial name
Pan paniscus
Schwarz, 1929
Bonobo distribution
Bonobo distribution

The Bonobo (Pan paniscus), until recently usually called the Pygmy Chimpanzee and less often the Dwarf or Gracile Chimpanzee, is one of the two species comprising the chimpanzee genus, Pan. The other species in genus Pan is Pan troglodytes, or the Common Chimpanzee. Both species are chimpanzees, although that term is now frequently used to refer only to the larger of the two species, Pan troglodytes. To avoid confusion, this article follows the growing trend to use "chimpanzee" to refer to both members of the genus.

The Bonobo was discovered in 1928, by American anatomist Harold Coolidge, represented by a skull in the Tervuren museum in Belgium that was thought to have belonged to a juvenile chimpanzee, though credit for the discovery went to the German Ernst Schwarz, who published the findings in 1929. The species is distinguished by an upright gait, a matriarchal and egalitarian culture, and the prominent role of sexual activity in their society.


Common Name

One theory about the origin of the name "Bonobo" is that it is a misspelling of the name of the town of Bolobo on the Congo river. A more likely explanation is that it comes from the word for ancestor in an ancient Bantu language.


The scientific name for the Bonobo is Pan paniscus. As their DNA is more than 98% identical to that of Homo sapiens , they are more closely related to Humans than Gorillas. Another study on the similarity of critical DNA sites in human and chimpanzee genes suggests that 99.4 percent are identical.

Therefore, scientists reclassified the taxonomy of the Bonobo (and Common Chimpanzee), changing their scientific family name from the family Pongidae of apes to the family Hominidae of humans.

But there is still controversy. Scientists such as Morris Goodman of Wayne State University in Detroit argue that the Bonobo and Common Chimpanzee are so closely related to humans, their genus name should also be classified with the Human genus Homo: Homo paniscus, Homo sylvestris, or Homo arboreus. An alternative philosophy suggests that the term Homo sapiens is actually the misnomer, and that humanity should be reclassified as Pan sapiens. In either case, a name change of the genus is problematic because it complicates the taxonomy of other species closely related to humans, including Australopithecus.

Recent DNA evidence suggests the Bonobo and Common Chimpanzee species separated from each other less than one million years ago. The chimpanzee line split from the last common ancestor with the Human approximately six million years ago. Because no species other than Homo sapiens has survived from the human line of that branching, both chimpanzee species are the closest living relatives of humans.

Physical characteristics


The Bonobo is more gracile than the Common Chimpanzee. Its head is smaller than that of the Common Chimpanzee but has a higher forehead. It has a black face with pink lips, small ears, wide nostrils, and long hair on its head. Females have slightly prominent breasts in contrast to the flat breasts of other female apes, though not as prominent as those of humans. The Bonobo also have slim upper bodies, narrow shoulders, thin necks, and long legs compared with the Common Chimpanzee. Bonobos walk upright about 25% of the time during ground locomotion. These characteristics, and their posture, give Bonobos a more human-like appearance than that of Common Chimpanzees. Moreover, Bonobos have highly individuated facial features, as humans do, so that one individual can look significantly different from another, adapted for visual recognition in social interaction.

Psychological characteristics

Frans de Waal, one of the world's leading primatologists, avers that the Bonobo is often capable of altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity.

Recent observations in the wild have confirmed that the males among the Common Chimpanzee troops are extraordinarily hostile to males from outside of the troop. Murder parties are organized to "patrol" for the unfortunate males who might be living nearby in a solitary state. This does not appear to be the behaviour of the Bonobo males or females, both of which seem to prefer sexual contact with their group to violent confrontation with outsiders. The Bonobo lives where the more aggressive Common Chimpanzee does not. Possibly the Bonobo has given a wide berth to their more violent and stronger cousins. Neither swim, and they generally inhabit ranges on opposite sides of the great rivers.

Bonobos, at least in captivity, are generally held to have superior intelligence to chimpanzees.

Sexual social behaviour

Sexual intercourse plays a major role in Bonobo society, being used as a greeting, a means of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation, and as favors traded by the females in exchange for food. Bonobos are the only non-human apes to have been observed engaging in all of the following sexual activities: face-to-face genital sex (most frequently female-female, then male-female and male-male), tongue kissing, and oral sex. In scientific literature, the female-female sex is often referred to as GG rubbing or genital-genital rubbing, while male-male sex is sometimes referred to as penis fencing .

Sexual activity happens within the immediate family as well as outside it, and often involves adults and children, even infants. Bonobos do not form permanent relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behaviour by gender or age, with the possible exception of sexual intercourse between mothers and their adult sons; some observers believe these pairings are taboo. When Bonobos come upon a new food source or feeding ground, the increased excitement will usually lead to communal sexual activity, presumably decreasing tension and allowing for peaceful feeding.

Bonobo males frequently engage in various forms of male-male genital sex ( frot). One form has two males hang from a tree limb face-to-face while "penis fencing". Frot may also occur where two males rub their penises together while in missionary position. A special form of frot called "rump rubbing" occurs to express reconciliation between two males after a conflict, where they stand back-to-back and rub their scrotal sacks together.

Bonobo females also engage in female-female genital sex ( tribadism) to socially bond with each other, thus forming a female nucleus of Bonobo society. The bonding between females allows them to dominate Bonobo society - although male Bonobos are individually stronger, they cannot stand alone against a united group of females. Adolescent females often leave their troop of birth to join another troop. Sexual bonding with other females establishes the new females as members of the group. This troop migration mixes the Bonobo gene pools.

Bonobo reproductive rates are not any higher than that of the Common Chimpanzee. Female Bonobos carry and nurse their young for five years and can give birth every five to six years. Compared with Common Chimpanzees, Bonobo females resume the genital swelling cycle much sooner after giving birth, allowing them to rejoin the sexual activities of their society. Also, Bonobo females who are either sterile or too young to reproduce engage in sexual activity.

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson emphasize the Bonobo's use of sex as a mechanism to avoid violence.

"[Common] Chimpanzees and Bonobos both evolved from the same ancestor that gave rise to humans, and yet the Bonobo is one of the most peaceful, unaggressive species of mammals living on the earth today. They have evolved ways to reduce violence that permeate their entire society. They show us that the evolutionary dance of violence is not inexorable".

Other social behaviour

Females are much smaller than males but can be considered to have a higher social status. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. The male's status reflects the status of his mother, and the son-mother bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, rank does not play as prominent a role as it does in other primate societies.

Bonobos are active from dawn to dusk and live in a fission-fusion pattern: a tribe of about a hundred will split into small groups during the day while looking for food, and then come back together to sleep. They sleep on trees in nests they construct. Unlike Common Chimpanzees, who have been known to hunt monkeys, Bonobos are primarily frugivores, although they do eat insects and have been observed occasionally catching small mammals such as squirrels.

Closeness to humanity

Bonobos are capable of passing the mirror-recognition test for self-awareness. They communicate through primarily vocal means, although the meanings of their vocalizations are not currently known; however, humans do understand their facial expressions and some of their natural hand gestures, such as their invitation to play. Two Bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha have been taught a vocabulary of about 400 words which they can type using a special keyboard of lexigrams (geometric symbols), and can respond to spoken sentences. Some, such as bioethicist Peter Singer, argue that these results qualify them for the "rights to survival and life", rights that humans theoretically accord to all persons.


Around 10,000 Bonobos are found only south of the Congo River and north of the Kasai River (a tributary of the Congo), in the humid forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo of central Africa. They are an endangered species, due to both habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat, the latter activity having increased dramatically during the current civil war due to the presence of heavily armed militias even in remote "protected" areas such as Salonga National Park. Today, at most several thousand Bonobos remain. This is part of a more general trend of ape extinction.

Conservation efforts

The genetic closeness of Bonobos, their relative rarity, and their self-awareness compel a moral and scientific imperative to preserve them and protect them from both abuse and extinction. Currently Bonobos may still be hunted to extinction by humans who eat them. The recent war in the DRC, driven by illegal exploitation of resources, had a major impact on the Bonobo and the local population. The locals now, more than ever, have a stronger desire to protect their interests and rights. Bonobo conservation efforts, are balancing these issues.

As the Bonobo's habitat is shared with people, the ultimate success of conservation efforts will rely on local and community involvement. The issue of parks vs. people is very cogent in the Cuvette Centrale, the Bonobo's range. There is strong local and broad-based Congolese resistance to establishing national parks as indigenous communities have often been driven from their forest homes by the establishment of parks. In Salonga, the only existing national park in the Bonobo habitat, there is no local involvement, and recent surveys indicate that the Bonobo, the African Forest Elephant and other species have been severely devastated by poachers. In contrast to this, there are areas where the Bonobo and biodiversity still thrive without any established parks, due to the indigenous beliefs and taboos against killing Bonobos.

During the war in the 1990s researchers and international NGOs were driven out of the Bonobo habitat. In 2002, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, initiated the Bonobo Peace Forest Project in cooperation with national institutions, local NGOs and local communities. The Peace Forest Project works with local communities to establish a linked constellation of community-based reserves, managed by local and indigenous people. Although there has been only limited support from international organizations, this model, implemented mainly through DRC organizations and local communities, appears to have success, inasmuch as agreements have been made to protect over 5,000 square miles of the Bonobo habitat. According to Dr. Amy Parish, the Bonobo Peace Forest "…is going to be a model for conservation in the 21st century."

This initiative has been gaining momentum and greater international recognition and has recently gained greater support through Conservation International, the Global Conservation Fund, US Fish & Wildlife Services Great Ape Conservation Fund, and the United Nation’s Great Ape Survival Project.

Starting in 2003, the US government allocated $54,000,000 to the Congo Basin Forest Partnership. This significant investment has triggered the involvement of international NGOs to establish bases in the region and work to develop bonobo conservation programs. This recent initiative should improve the likelihood of bonobo survival, but its success may still depend upon supporting greater involvement and capacity building of local and indigenous communities.

In addition, Some concerned parties have addressed the crisis plight of these cousins of humanity on several science and ecological websites. Organizations like the WWF, the African Wildlife Foundation, and others are trying to focus attention on the extreme risk to the species. Some have suggested that a reserve be established in a less unstable part of Africa, or on an island in a place like Indonesia. Non-invasive medical research could be conducted on relocated free Bonobos with little risk or discomfort.

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