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Bonobo Monkeys: 5 Facts About Humanity's Closest Relative

Read on to learn 5 facts about bonobo monkeys, the closest genetic relative to human beings.

Read on to learn 5 facts about bonobo monkeys, the closest genetic relative to human beings.

In the jungles of the Congo live humanity's two closest relatives; the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Although they both share 98.7% of our DNA, the two species couldn't be more different from each other in terms of behaviour and social structure.

This article covers the following five facts about the bonobo monkey:

5 Bonobo Monkey Facts

  1. They are matriarchial
  2. They use sex to resolve conflicts
  3. They are (mostly) peaceful
  4. The females migrate between groups
  5. They can understand human speech

1. They Are Matriarchial

Female bonobos sit at the top of the bonobo hierarchy, in contrast to chimpanzees, where alpha males hold the dominant positions.

The matriarch—usually one of the oldest and most experienced females in the group—makes the key decisions along with a circle of high-ranking females.

The position of males in the hierarchy is determined by their relationship with the high-ranking females. If you're a male who has lost the support of the matriarch, any authority you may have once held is rendered null and void.

Female bonobos are smaller than their male counterparts but compensate for that by forming a "sisterhood" of closely bonded females. Any male foolish enough to challenge a high-ranking female will be set upon by the entire matriarchy.

2. They Use Sex to Resolve Conflicts

Bonobos are one of the few animals, aside from humans, that engage in sex for reasons aside from procreation.

Indeed, bonobos spend much of their time copulating. Any tensions between two bonobo monkeys often result in sex rather than violence; they apparently see it as a way of resolving conflict.

They frequently engage in sexual relations with members of the same sex as well. Among the females, sex and grooming is a way of forming alliances.

Bonobos are also one of the few animals that, like humans, engage in face-to-face sex. According to Frans B. M. De Waal, an ethologist from the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre in Atlanta: "Although chimpanzees virtually never adopt face-to-face positions, bonobos do so in one out of three copulations in the wild."

When it comes to child-rearing, males are barely involved, partially because the species is so promiscuous that they can't keep track of who fathered whose children. Thus, females take care of the young, who reach adolescence at the age of seven.

Despite their increased promiscuity in comparison to chimpanzees, the two species reproduce at the same rate. A female bonobo gives birth to a single infant at intervals of five to six years.

3. They Are (Mostly) Peaceful

Violence does occur between bonobo groups, but the species is incredibly laid-back for the most part, especially when compared to their chimpanzee cousins.

Whereas encounters between troops of chimpanzees frequently result in violence as they compete for food and territory, bonobos are more likely to intermingle with members of other communities. According to Frans B. M. De Waal, "reports exist of peaceable mingling, including mutual sex and grooming."

Even their feeding habits are mostly non-violent, with their diet consisting primarily of foraged fruit and plants (although they do eat the occasional invertebrate or small vertebrate). Again, a dramatic contrast with chimps, who have been observed hunting monkeys.

A study of bonobos and chimps at Stuttgart Zoo placed honey in their enclosures to see how the different species reacted. In the case of the chimpanzees, the alpha male charged through the enclosure to claim the honey for himself, only allowing the females to dine once he had eaten his fill. On the bonobo side, the females approached the honey before the males and began grooming each other whilst taking turns helping themselves to honey.

It's unclear why the two species are so different, but it's been suggested that bonobos evolved in an environment where food is more plentiful, resulting in less competitive behaviour. Specifically, bonobos live south of the Congo River while chimpanzees stick to the north side; the geographic divide may have influenced social development.

4. The Females Migrate Between Groups

Female bonobos who reach adolescence will migrate to other communities. Researchers suggest this is a way of minimising inbreeding and promoting genetic diversity.

While chimpanzee groups are usually hostile to interlopers, in bonobo communities, the females ensure that immigrants are easily integrated. Newly arrived females identify the senior females in their new group and ingratiate themselves through mutual grooming. Once they've produced offspring, their position within the group is solidified.

5. They Can Understand Human Speech

Bonobos in captivity have been shown to emulate human behaviours simply by observing the researchers around them. Examples include using tools, playing musical instruments, and in one case, driving a golf cart into a wall.

One famous case is a bonobo named Kanzi, who's been filmed tapping symbols on a keyboard in response to corresponding words. The mischievous bonobo also used the keyboard to communicate with researchers such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (who provided a Ted Talk on the subject of bonobos).

In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Lindsay Stern details one of Kanzi's mischievous moments: "Extending a finger, he pressed the key for 'apple,' then the key for 'chase.' Then he looked at Savage-Rumbaugh, picked up an apple lying on the floor, and ran away from her with a grin on his face."


Bonobo Monkeys: An Endangered Species

Unfortunately, humanity's closest relative is listed as endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Economic desperation has led to the hunting of bonobos for bushmeat, while civil unrest has resulted in environmental destruction.

Bonobos were the last of the great apes to be discovered and are still understudied. Data on their population size is limited as they live in environments that are difficult to access, but it's estimated to range from 10,000 to 20,000.

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) is an international organisation dedicated to protecting bonobos and preserving their habitat.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.