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Bonobo Paradise

December 10, 2010
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Ok, I’ve got a good joke for you… What is Alfred Kinsey, bell hooks, John Thomas Scopes and Jane Goodall’s favorite animal? Why, it’s the hyper-sexual, anti-patriarchal, closest genetic/evolutionary relative to humans: the bonobo monkey (aka pygmy chimp), of course!

Young orphaned bonobo at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

(I just made that joke up all by myself just now. And by the way, I googled all those people to make sure I actually knew who they were…)

Anyway, few weeks ago, we took a field trip to Lola ya Bonobo (Bonobo Paradise in Lingala), the bonobo monkey sanctuary outside of Kinshasa.  It was our first trip in our new (to us) car, and I have to say, it’s a good thing we chose the SUV, because the roads were straight out of a bumpy, puddly mud fantasy.  Also, it’s always great to get out of the city a bit.

The bonobo sanctuary was really awesome.  My favorite part was the nursery, where young orphaned monkeys anywhere from 6 months to 6 years old live and are taken care of, until they are ready to join the rest of the bonobo families in the main sanctuary forest.  Usually, these little guys are orphaned when their mother is killed by hunters searching for food in the bush (monkey is commonly eaten here…).  Since baby bonobos won’t survive in the wild without their mother’s care, some of the lucky ones end up here at the sanctuary. And they are SO cute.

Check out our photos below, and click on a photo to view the larger image.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Bonobos, DR Congo, posted with vodpod

Bonobos are fascinating animals- we talked about their social structures in detail in one of my psychology classes in college.  Since they are a relatively newly “discovered”/researched species and they are so genetically similar to us, they have shed some new light on the evolutionary perspectives of human social interactions.

But don’t take my word for it, read about them yourself!  I’ve paraphrased some points from the article Bonobo Sex and Society by Frans B.M. de Wall,  originally published in Scientific American, March 1995 (click for the full text).

A Near Relative

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females.

Bonobos shares more than 98 percent of our genetic profile, making it as close to a human as, say, a fox is to a dog…

Missionary Position

Sex is the key to the social life of the bonobo. The first suggestion that the sexual behavior of bonobos is different came in the 1950s. In those days, face-to- face copulation was considered uniquely human, a cultural innovation that needed to be taught to preliterate people (hence the term “missionary position”)…

Bonobos become sexually aroused remarkably easily, and they express this excitement in a variety of mounting positions and genital contacts. Although chimpanzees virtually never adopt face-to-face positions, bonobos do so in one out of three copulations in the wild. Furthermore, the frontal orientation of the bonobo vulva and clitoris strongly suggest that the female genitalia are adapted for this position.

Make Love, Not War

One explanation for bonobos’ sexual activity is probably the real cause: competition. There are two reasons to believe sexual activity is the bonobo’s answer to avoiding conflict.

First, anything that arouses the interest of more than one bonobo at a time tends to result in sexual contact. If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box. Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to diffuse tension.

Second, bonobo sex often occurs in aggressive contexts totally unrelated to food. A jealous male might chase another away from a female, after which the two males reunite and engage in scrotal rubbing. Or after a female hits a juvenile, the latter’s mother may lunge at the aggressor, an action that is immediately followed by genital rubbing between the two adults.

Female Alliance

Bonobos are unique in that females strongly bond with same-sex strangers later in life, setting up an artificial sisterhood through the use of sexual contact and grooming.

Bonobo society appears to be female-dominated.

Amy R. Parish of UC Davis reported on food competition in identical groups (one adult male and two adult females) of chimpanzees and bonobos. Honey was provided in a “termite hill” from which it could be extracted by dipping sticks into a small hole. As soon as honey was made available, the male chimpanzee would make a charging display through the enclosure and claim everything for himself. Only when his appetite was satisfied would he let the females fish for honey.

In the bonobo group, it was the females that approached the honey first. After having engaged in some rubbing, they would feed together, taking turns with virtually no competition between them. The male might make as many charging displays as he wanted; the females were not intimidated and ignored the commotion.

Others reported similar findings. If a male bonobo tried to harass a female, all females would band together to chase him off. Because females appeared more successful in dominating males when they were together than on their own, their close association and frequent genital rubbing may represent an alliance. Females may bond so as to outcompete members of the individually stronger sex.

Sex and Society

Occasionally, the role of sex in relation to food is taken one step further, bringing bonobos very close to humans in their behavior. It has been speculated by anthropologists that sex is partially separated from reproduction in our species because it serves to cement mutually profitable relationships between men and women. The human female’s capacity to mate throughout her cycle and her strong sex drive allow her to exchange sex for male commitment and paternal care, thus giving rise to the nuclear family.

This arrangement is thought to be favored by natural selection because it allows women to raise more offspring than they could if they were on their own. Although bonobos clearly do not establish the exclusive heterosexual bonds characteristic of our species, their behavior does fit important elements of this model. A female bonobo shows extended receptivity and uses sex to obtain a male’s favors when–usually because of youth–she is too low in social status to dominate him.

What was really amazing to me was just how human they were: the smiles and grimaces, their laughs and shrieks, the way the toddler monkeys smacked each other when one wouldn’t share, and then hid behind their surrogate mamas for protection…

Here’s a video clip, you’ll see what I mean.

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