Photograph by Roy Toft, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Bonobos (above, captive animals in a file photograph) live in close family groups led by females.


Photograph by Roy Toft, Nat Geo Image Collection

Bonobo "Baby Talk" Reveals Roots of Human Language

We visit the Jacksonville Zoo to spend some quality family time with the endangered apes, among our closest kin.


JACKSONVILLE, Florida—Like any precocious teen, Neely Ann is energetic and curious. She dances in great, looping circles while the fuddy-duddy adults lounge in the afternoon heat.

At five-and-a-half years old, the female bonobo is at "a really punky stage," says Tracy Fenn, supervisor of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo. (Read more about bonobos in National Geographic magazine.)

Florida already feels like a sauna on this July day, but Neely Ann's mother, Kuni, a high-ranking female, is loving it. She climbs to the top of a wooden platform to get closer to the sun. From the visitor area, about 30 feet (9 meters) away, I watch her, Neely Ann, a male named Akili, and first-time mom Jo-T with her nine-month-old son Lukuru (Luke for short).

Summer is often family time, so when Jeffrey Pool asked us via Facebook, "Are bonobos patriarchal?" Weird Animal Question of the Week decided to get up close and personal with these great apes, our closest relatives along with chimpanzees.

Jacksonville Zoo, one of only seven zoos in the U.S. that maintain captive populations of the endangered bonobo, recently invited me to spend a day with our fascinating relatives.

Native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the apes have declined mostly due to poaching and the effects of civil war, according to the International Union for Conservation in Nature.

Bonobo "Baby Talk"

As we watch the bonobos, I think I hear a vocalization called peeping—a short, high-pitched sound bonobos make with their mouths closed.

Peeping, which is very similar to the burbling of human infants before they form words, may tell us more about the evolution of human speech.

That's because while most animal sounds have a more narrow meaning, bonobos use peeping in several contexts, including eating, communicating danger, and resting, according to a study published this week in the journal PeerJ.

WATCH: Wild bonobos emit a peeping call while feeding. Video: Zanna Clay/Lui Kotale Bonobo Project

Such vocal flexibility is "an important transition toward what we see in human speech," says study leader Zanna Clay, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. (See more bonobo pictures.)

It also "suggests that this ability was already present in our common ancestor, before humans diverged from the rest of the great apes," about seven to eight million years ago, says Clay, who received funding from National Geographic.

Females in Charge

To answer Pool's original question, bonobos are unique among apes in that they're matriarchal. The animals also live in fission-fusion groups, which means the size and makeup of a group changes as individuals come and go.

To mimic this system at the Jacksonville Zoo, their group of 11 bonobos is split into smaller subgroups that vary regularly, Fenn says.

Things You Probably Didn't Know About Cute Bonobo Chimps June 10, 2014 -  Bonobos are the only ape that doesn't kill. And unlike any other ape,  bonobos help each other out (a lot like humans do). Through the use of " bonobo TV," researchers found that  bonobos' yawns are contagious (also like humans). But while they have humanlike traits, their biggest threat comes from humans.

Neely Ann, the young female, is learning how to dominate males, and sometimes picks on them. Fenn says "they know better than to retaliate," or they'll have mom Kuni and her allies to answer to. (Read about bonobos' empathy and its connection to human kindness.)

Bonobos are not as aggressive as chimpanzees, but that doesn't mean they can't be dangerous. A group of females attacking an errant male can "inflict significant injuries," Fenn says.

Eventually Neely Ann will go to another zoo, which follows the natural way of things: In the wild, young females leave their home to join a new group between about six and nine years of age (bonobos can live up to 40 years).

Males stay with their mothers and share her social rank. (See a graphic of how bonobos are related to us.)

That means little Luke, so adorably nestled in his mom's arms, will be a mama's boy for life.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.