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The Bonobo

Who are the bonobos?

They are Great Apes, like us. Scientific classification divides us into four genera within the Great Ape Family, the Hominidae:

  • Orangutans (in Asia) and their genus is Pongo
  • Gorillas (in Africa) and their genus is Gorilla
  • Chimpanzees and Bonobos (in Africa) and their genus is Pan
  • Man (where aren’t we?) and our genus is Homo

Bonobos’ full name is Pan paniscus. Chimpanzees’ full name is Pan troglodytes. See in the links at the bottom, PBS has a nice family tree presentation.

When did we discover bonobos?

It was not until 1929 that anatomists realized that there was an ape enough like the chimpanzee to be Pan but different enough to be a new species.

Why did it take so long?

Westerners saw few bonobos until the second half of the 20th century. The forest where they range covers much less area than the chimpanzees’ forest and it was off the track frequented by early explorers/colonialists.

Where are bonobos?

Only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More precisely, bonobos are found south and west of the Congo River. But there the certainty ends:

  • As recently as 1997, the Lomami River is given as the bonobos eastern limit. We have found bonobos further east. They are plentiful between the Lomami and the Lualaba, all the way south to the savanna/forest ecotone . That is good news.
  • But as recently as 2007 a new massive 11,000 square mile rainforest reserve, the Sankuru Reserve, was established for bonobo.  Subsequent surveys have found that most of the forest in this large reserve is empty, no bonobos and no large mammals. This is not good news.

The lesson is that there are large empty spaces in the bonobo’s range where there is neither chimp nor bonobo, empty possibly as a result of habitat type, but often because of bushmeat hunting pressure.

What sets bonobos apart from chimpanzees?

Anatomically, their body proportions are more humanoid:

  • They have smaller, rounder heads (skulls) and
  • They have longer rear legs

Also:

  • Bonobos are able to stand more upright — and often do.
  • The difference in weight between male and female bonobos is also more humanoid, females average 85% of male weight whereas in chimps they average less than 75%.

And:

  • Bonobos sing contralto to the chimpanzee bass. “The difference in timbre between the voices of the two species may well be of the same magnitude as that between a small child and a grown man.”
  • And bonobos have red lips…

Are bonobos closer to humans than chimpanzees?

Not possible. The split between the two Pan species happened millions of years after man had already taken a separate path. It has been suggested though that bonobos might be the closest living model of the “missing link”. That missing link was a creature of 6 million years ago.

Do they act more like humans?

  • Bonobos are characterized by collective female dominance, whereas all but the youngest chimp males are dominant over all chimp females.
  • Bonobos are peaceful. Aggression is diffused by sex and play.

Do you think they act more like humans ? In the video below, a forest guide imitates the bonobo’s call.

Are they safe? Will they be here in a hundred years?

NO ANSWER. But we can certainly work hard to assure them a place in the future. Your help is appreciated.


Our discoveries about bonobo along the Lomami River:

For more information:

  1. Bonobo, the Forgotten Ape. 1997. F. De Waal and F. Lanting. University of California Press. 210pp. The book is available for viewing on Google Books.
  2. World Atlas of Great Apes and Their Conservation. 2005. J. Caldecott and L Miles, eds. University of California Press. 456pp
  3. The Bonobos. Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. 2008. T. Furuichi and J. Thompson, eds. Springer. 327pp
  4. From PBS’ Nova, see our family tree in a simple interactive display with audio samples.
  5. Read lesser known facts (how much does a bonobo cost on the meat market?) on the bonobo in this post including two videos (the one above) on how to call them.
  6. We share links on bonobos once in a while. Bonobo videos, paintings, photos, etc.
  7. National Geographic two minute video : Bonobo Ape Moms Call the Shots.

  8. Of course, there is the Wikipedia bonobo page, although it needs some rewriting.