A Short Introduction to Our Lovely Relative – the Bonobo

Except you are planning to go on an expedition to the rainforest of the southern Congo, only in 19 zoos worldwide can you find the closest relative to the human race, the bonobo. But why can he be found only so rarely in the zoo? It might have to do with bonobos being a highly endangered species with only a few ten thousand living individuals left. But it could also be because parents would have a hard time explaining to their children what the heck is going on behind the metal fence.

Karine Aigner

Like orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the bonobos are part of the great apes family. Together with the chimpanzees, they are the closest species to humans, with approximately 99% similarity of their DNA. In captivity, the typical lifetime of a bonobo is around 40 to 50 years, in the wild most likely much shorter. The probably oldest living bonobo can be found in the zoo in Frankfurt. Her name is Margrit and today she is supposed to be around 70 years old.

Okay, now, after finishing the formalities, we can finally talk about a more exciting feature of those lovely creatures. Bonobos like to have sex – a lot. While human beings are comparatively inhibited when it comes to sex-related topics and interactions, for bonobos, sex seems to be part of their natural social behavior, probably similar to a handshake or a hug for us humans. Bonobos have sexual interactions of almost every kind in almost every situation with nearly everyone. Females with females, males with males, old with young… standard penetration, oral sex, manual genital massages, and other exciting interactions – the sexual repertoire of the bonobos, is surely sophisticated. Females usually engage in genital rubbing behaviors with other females, mainly when bonding socially with females from other communities they want to join. But also, the males have their highlights. Besides penis-scrotum or scrotum-buttocks rubbing, an interesting performance to witness is when the guys are hanging upside down on a tree branch and practice penis-fencing, meaning rubbing their erected penises together. Or for instance, when bonobos find a new food source, they don’t start eating right away. Before, they will engage in sexual interactions for some minutes, and then they start eating.

But apart from their openly lived out promiscuous sexuality that distinguishes the bonobos from humans (at least at their current evolutionary and mental state), there are many similarities in their sexual behavior that show once more how close the bonobos are to us. They are, for example, the only species besides humans that regularly have sex in a face-to-face position. Furthermore, bonobos engage in tongue-kissing and might be the only animals besides humans that do so. And also, during sexual interactions, female bonobos emit sounds and facial expressions that might reflect an orgasmic experience. By the way, the average copulation takes around 13 seconds. So even if a bonobo has sex ten times a day, he surely has enough time for other activities.

Mariah Stewart

But what does the bonobo society looks like besides having a lot of intercourses? It seems surprisingly relaxed and peaceful. Although it’s not true that bonobos aren’t aggressive at all (they are still primates after all), compared to their close relatives, the chimpanzees, bonobos are much less violent, first of all, because they don’t kill each other. Scientists believe that it’s in fact, those sexual interactions that make the bonobos overcome their aggressions and, in turn, let them become more peaceful. Many times when bonobos encounter a potential conflict situation (as how to distribute food), they end up having some form of sex and thus release stress, bond, overcome their aggression and find a more peaceful solution with a now clear mind.

On top of that: bonobos live in a female-centered matriarchal society, meaning that the females are in charge. How this fact is connected to the topic we discussed before, I will leave it to your imagination!

Christopher Machold

Scientific American: Bonobo sex and society
Wikipedia: Bonobo
Britannica: The scandalous social lives of bonobos
Hessenschau:  Bonobo-Uroma mischt Frankfurter Zoo auf

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