We share about 98.7 percent of our DNA with bonobos like the cheek-pinchingly sweet baby above. Bonobos are pretty much our cousins, but how well do we really know them?
1. DON’T CALL THEM CHIMPS.
Bonobos and chimpanzees are related, but they are different species in the genus Pan. Bonobos (Pan paniscus) live south of the Congo River and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) live north, which suggests, researchers say, that the river’s formation split one group of apes into two. Bonobos have a more slender build than chimpanzees; black faces and pink lips (for chimps, both features change coloration over time); and less sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance and size between males and females) than chimpanzees.
2. THE WORD BONOBO IS MEANINGLESS.
Aside from being the apes’ common name, the word bonobo has no meaning. Researchers believe the nonsense term may be the result of a misspelling on a shipping crate headed for the bonobo hotspot of Bolobo, Zaire, in the 1920s.
3. THEY LIKE SEX. A LOT.
Pan paniscus is an impressively randy species, and its members aren’t choosy. Any age or sex will do; male/male and female/female pairings are just as common as female/male. They're tireless, too: Female bonobos hook up with one another about once every two hours. In addition to rubbing against each other, male bonobos also seem to enjoy dangling from trees while penis fencing.
4. ALL THAT SEX SERVES A PURPOSE.
Primatologists believe the bonobos have sex for three reasons: pleasure, bonding, and peacekeeping. Female adults dominate bonobo societies, and some researchers say the constant humping is a way of reinforcing social ties. But they also resort to sex in times of stress or crisis. When a group of bonobos encounter a new food source, another band of bonobos, or a problem that requires cooperation, they don’t freak out. They get freaky. Scientists say the sex works to both defuse tension and inspire cooperation. It’s kind of genius, really.
5. THEY’RE WIRED FOR EMPATHY.
In a famous 2011 experiment, scientists conducted brain scans on both chimpanzees and bonobos. They found clear structural differences: The brain regions associated with empathy, noticing distress in others, and anxiety were all larger in bonobos. Bonobos also had a thicker connection between the brain regions associated with aggression and impulse control—a connection that likely helps suppress antisocial behavior.
6. THEY’RE AN UNWITTING POLITICAL BATTLEGROUND.
A left-wing/right-wing, bonobo/chimp divide has formed, unbeknownst to either species. Nonscientists on either side of the ideological divide have famously used generalizations about bonobo behavior to advance their ideology, and media outlets seem to take a certain delight in tearing down the bonobos’ (undeserved) angelic image. All primatologists like Frans de Waal can do is remind everyone to stick to the facts.
7. THEY’RE REALLY SMART.
Unsurprisingly, our bonobo cousins have pretty impressive brains. A male bonobo named Kanzi learned how to use a symbol-covered keyboard to communicate with researchers. When his keepers gave him primitive stone tools like those early humans would have used, Kanzi figured out how to use them. One one occasion, he also reportedly touched the symbols for “marshmallow” and “stick” on his keyboard, then started a fire and roasted his marshmallows.