- Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
- Order: Primates
- Family: Hominidae
- Genus: Pan
- Species: paniscus
Bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee? The bonobo is one of the most rare and intelligent animals in the world. The social structure of this magnificent ape is unique and complex: in the largely peaceful bonobo society, the females rule the roost. Bonobos are members of the great ape family, along with gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. Earlier scientists thought the bonobo was just a smaller version of the common chimpanzee and so the term “pygmy chimpanzee” was used. But don’t be fooled! Bonobos and chimpanzees are really quite different—you just need to know what to look for. Here's a quick check list so can tell a bonobo from a chimp like a champ:
Size— Chimpanzees and bonobos are about the same size, but bonobos are more slender and have smaller heads and smaller ears.
Food— Chimpanzees eat plant material as well as monkeys and other mammals when they have the chance. Bonobos eat mainly leaves, stems, fruits, worms, insects, and sometimes small fish.
Location— Bonobos are found only in a small part of one country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The four subspecies of chimpanzee range from western to central Africa.
Getting Along— When trouble comes between chimpanzees, they often fight it out. They are also very protective of their territory and kill chimpanzees from another group, called a troop, if they try to move in. Bonobos don’t seem to have established territories, and they tend to handle any squabbles or tension by using different sexual behaviors instead of aggression.
Looks— Bonobos are more comfortable walking upright than chimpanzees are. They also keep their white rump patch for life, while the patch darkens with age on chimpanzees. And bonobos look quite distinguished with their “hair” neatly parted down the middle of their head!
Who's the smartest of them all? Some scientists believe that bonobos are the most intelligent of the primates (other than humans, of course!). Maybe that’s because they share many of our human behaviors, such as teaching their young social skills, using tools to get food, and working together for the good of the entire troop.
Scientists have taught a few bonobos, housed in labs, how to communicate with humans by using symbols that represent words on a board. They can understand spoken words and reply to questions or ask for things by pointing to symbols. Bonobos even laugh when they are tickling each other or playing together, and they do other things that may remind you of some people you know!
HABITAT AND DIET
Nests aren't just for the birds! Bonobos live in the rain forests of the Congo Basin in Africa. They prefer old-growth forests, with trees that bear fruit at different times throughout the year. They use leaves and twigs to build sturdy nests in the forks of trees each evening. By all sleeping in the same area, they can help each other look out for predators such as leopards and snakes, and this could also be a way to exchange information. They can also keep track of each other. Adult bonobos sometimes share a nest, which is a unique behavior among the great apes. Bonobos are very comfortable in trees, swinging hand to hand through the branches, climbing up tree trunks, and leaping from one tree to another.
Food for everyone. Can you imagine living in an all-you-can-eat salad bar? When it comes to finding food, bonobos have it pretty easy in their rain forest home. They are nimble climbers and can swing from tree to tree searching for tasty fruit. Bonobos forage during the day for food both in trees and on the ground. Working in small groups, they often share the food they’ve found and then gather together in larger groups to build their sleeping nests. These clever apes have been observed sponging water out of tree trunks with moss, fashioning a rain hat out of leaves, and shaping a toothpick out of a twig. Bonobos also spend hours hunting for earthworms to snack on—a rain forest candy to them!
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we feed the bonobos a variety of fruits and veggies: bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, turnips, carrots, yams, spinach, and broccoli, as well as leafy clippings from ficus, honeysuckle, hibiscus, and sugarcane, and low-starch, high-fiber biscuits. For treats, they are offered popcorn, sugar-free cereals, nuts, and seeds.
Try some of this! Bonobos have a wide range of vocal communications, and during times of stress they carry on rapid, ping-pong vocal exchanges. When a bonobo finds a good food source, he or she informs the others with a food call. Hand and even foot gestures and facial expressions also help bonobos communicate with each other. Making funny faces is a typical solitary game played by bonobo youngsters.
In bonobo society, the females take charge and keep lifelong bonds with their sons. When a daughter is old enough, she must leave the troop and find another one to join. She breeds with all the males in the new group, and she gains permanent membership when she gives birth. Adult females form strong bonds with each other. The female-led troops tend to be relatively peaceful, and bonobos seem to be sensitive to each other’s needs.
Infants are born virtually helpless and must be carried everywhere by their mothers for the first two years. At birth, the male bonobo inherits the social status of his mother and relies on her for protection. He shares a close, permanent bond with his mother and remains with her throughout his life. A young male is particularly vulnerable without a mother’s care. Both male and female youngsters stay close to Mom for several years while they grow and learn how to be a part of bonobo society. The mother gives birth every five to six years, allowing her time to bond with each offspring.
Bonobos use touch to give reassurance and comfort to each other. They form close relationships with other members of the troop, even after they are grown. Although bonobos can reach their sexual maturity at 6 to 8 years of age, the females don’t usually have their first baby until they are about 13 years old.
Playing is a part of growing up, as the young bonobos gain independence and test their skills against each other. The youngsters play some of the same games you might play, such as King of the Mountain, where one chimp parades around on top of a hill or rock while the others try to pull him or her down, and Blindman’s Bluff, where young bonobos cover their eyes with their hands and run around chasing each other!
AT THE ZOO
The first bonobo to arrive in San Diego was a male, Kakowet, who was estimated to be 18 months old. He was captured as a youngster by natives in the Lac Leopold II region of what was then the Congo Republic, brought to the village of Inongo, and eventually taken to the zoo in the country’s capital, which is now called Kinshasa. Raised in the home of that zoo’s manager, he became a part of their family. In 1960, the zoo’s director made a gift of this rare bonobo to the San Diego Zoo.
During his long flight from the Congo he was allowed free run of the airplane! Soon after his arrival in San Diego he was placed in our Children’s Zoo, where his gentle and affectionate nature made a big hit with all. He was raised with a young gorilla, orangutan, and chimpanzee for company, and what adventures they had! In 1962, 6-year-old female Linda arrived here from the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium. They immediately became fast friends, and the pair produced 3 male and 7 female offspring over 18 years at the San Diego Zoo.
Today, there are nine bonobos in the troop, residing in a spacious home in the Zoo’s Lost Forest below the gorillas’ lush habitat. What you’ll notice is that these intelligent animals are a lot of fun to watch. Their exhibit is dominated by giant rock outcroppings and distinctive, twisted palms, on which the playful bonobos nimbly climb. Waterfalls and streams add to the African rain forest atmosphere. But the real show is the bonobos themselves—just a few minutes observing them in action, and you’ll realize how smart they really are!
Unfortunately, there are few bonobos left in the wild, and so they are considered one of the most endangered of the great apes. Humans continue to move into bonobo habitat, hunting these amazing apes for food and selling their babies into the pet trade. Commercial logging operations create new roads to harvest timber, giving people easier access to hunt or capture many rain forest species, including bonobos.
Conservationists estimate that at least 4,000 wild chimpanzees and bonobos are killed every year to satisfy the demand for “ape steaks.” Furthermore, the bonobo’s range is within one unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which puts their populations in a more precarious position than if their range overlapped many countries.
There are also few bonobos in zoos. The San Diego Zoo has successfully bred and maintained these intelligent and curious apes since 1960, and we continue to fund conservation efforts for them in Central Africa.