Bonobo

Common Name:
Bonobos
Scientific Name:
Pan paniscus
Type:
Mammals
Diet:
Omnivore
Group Name:
Troop, party
Average Life Span In The Wild:
20 to 40 years
Size:
Around three feet tall
Weight:
Females, up to 68 pounds; males up to 86 pounds
IUCN Red List Status:
Endangered
Current Population Trend:
Decreasing

What is a bonobo? 

The bonobo is a species of great ape that shares nearly 99 percent of our DNA, just like chimpanzees.

Yet these primates, native only to Democratic Republic of the Congo, are often overshadowed by their more well-known chimp cousins. Western scientists often called them the “pygmy chimp” until 1929, when bonobos were officially recognized as a separate species.

Bonobos are roughly the same size as chimps, but with lither bodies; smaller, more rounded shoulders; longer legs; and a propensity to walk upright. Their wide-ranging diet includes fruits, insects, fish, and small mammals, including monkeys, hyrax, and small antelope.

Bonobos forage both on the ground—for earthworms and other invertebrates—and in the forest canopy, where they swing through the trees in search of fruit. Bonobos also sleep aloft  large groups, making nighttime nests in the crooks of tree limbs.

Also like chimps, bonobos live in fission-fusion societies, meaning that smaller “parties” will split off from the main troop to forage elsewhere for the day, so the composition of groups often changes. The older females in the group usually decide when and which way they will travel.

Bonobos are famous for their frequent use of copulation to smooth over disagreements and calm anxious family members. They’re also willing to share food, not only with friends, but with bonobos they don’t know. (Read more about how bonobos are kind to strangers.)

Even so, female bonobos can be aggressive if needed. In one incident, three high-ranking females attacked four unruly males, biting part of the toe off the alpha male, who came slinking back to the family three weeks later.

Reproduction

Despite their frequent sexual activity, bonobos have about the same reproductive rate as chimpanzees, giving birth about every five years.

Females usually have their first offspring when they are around 14 years old, after a gestation period of about eight months.

A study on captive bonobo births described them as “social” events, with other females protecting and helping the mother-to-be through the birthing process like midwives—the only species aside from humans known to assist in births.

Bonobos care for their young until they’re about four years old. Males reach puberty at about eight years old and females around five years old. Sons stay with their mothers their whole lives—maintaining close, special bonds—while bonobo daughters leave to join another troop, possibly trying out a few different groups before finding one to stay with.

Females take on most of the parenting duties, but males contribute to the troop in general by providing food and protection, particularly the young. (Learn how bonobo "baby talk" may have takeaways for human language.)

Conservation status 

An endangered species, bonobos likely number between 10,000 and 20,000 in the wild. There are captive bonobos living in zoos and other facilities worldwide.

War and civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s and 2000s, logging, and agriculture have destroyed and fragmented much of the bonobo’s habitat. Though it’s illegal to hunt or capture bonobos, the apes are also poached as bushmeat, another factor in their decline.

However, there are several efforts underway to save the species. The Congolese nonprofit Les Amis de Bonobo un Congo, for instance, releases orphaned and trafficked bonobos back into the wild.

Read This Next

The world’s newest whale is already endangered
Sanibel Island was a paradise. Then Hurricane Ian struck.
Capturing the art and science of NASA’s origami starshade

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet