Bonobos make generous neighbours

In case you thought the ‘hippy of the primates’ couldn’t get any nicer…


Bonobos are known for their peaceful lives and strong community bonds. Sex, grooming and food sharing are important within a community, all used to dissolve tension and maintain relationships. In previous studies, captive subjects even chose to release other bonobos from locked rooms and share food with them rather than keep the food to themselves and eat alone.


Now, new evidence has been published that suggests bonobos are even friendlier than we thought. In January 2017, two communities were observed sharing food for the first time. The groups occupy territories on opposite sides of a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo and only run into each other a couple of times a year.


Usually, their meeting involve some chasing and vocalisation before the groups part, but on this occasion the situation was different. Bonobos supplement their largely plant-based diet with meat a couple times a month, and an alpha male from the western community had just caught a duiker, a small antelope. The noise from the hunt drew attention from members of his own group, and members of the eastern community.


The male climbed to a high spot in a tree with the duiker, and females from both groups and their young followed. Without any fighting or snatching, the females asked the male for food by stretching out their hands and, over the next half an hour, he shared out parts of the antelope.


A female from the eastern community got hold of the duiker’s head, which she then shared with her baby and with females from both groups. Females from each side of the river took part in social grooming, and there was no aggression observed during the encounter. Females dominate in bonobo society, and the other male members of the two groups stayed out of the way while the food was shared.


Sharing food with members of another group rather than defending it demonstrates the important of social relationships to bonobos. The scientists who witnessed the unusual behaviour believe it could give an insight into the social life of our last common ancestor and the evolution of our own capacity for sharing.


Photo: Becker1999/flickr