7 Facts About Bonobos

Humans share 98.7 percent of DNA with bonobos

1. Our closest living relatives

We are more closely related to bonobos (and chimpanzees) than we are to any other animal on earth. We share 98.7% of our DNA with bonobos – this means that bonobos are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. This leads to many similarities between bonobos and humans, but also some key differences.

2. Females in charge

The main reason that bonobos are so peaceful is that males are not in charge. The dominant bonobo in any group is never a male. This is unusual in the animal kingdom. Usually, if females are in charge, they are a lot bigger than the males. Bonobo females are smaller than males, but the females have very special friendships. If any male in the group becomes aggressive, the females join forces and prevent him from hurting anyone. Over evolutionary time, bonobos have become much less aggressive than their ape relatives, including humans.

Females in charge

3. Peaceful

Most of us believe that humans are the most intelligent animal on earth. It’s true that we have been extremely successful, and we have impressive technology. But there is one problem we have not been able to overcome. We have not figured out how to avoid, murder, war, and bloodshed. We share this trait with our other closest relative, chimpanzees. In fact, the murder rate of chimpanzees and humans (before we had modern weapons) is about the same. Bonobos are the only great ape that have never been seen to kill their own kind. If we can figure out bonobos’ secret, we might be able to make our greatest accomplishment – world peace.

Peaceful Bonobo

4. Conflict avoidance

Bonobos have evolved to avoid fighting, about anything. Researchers working at our sanctuary discovered that in a situation that had the potential to cause conflict (two individuals were in competition over food), chimpanzees had an increase in testosterone, which is related to competitiveness, and bonobos had an increase in cortisol, which is related to stress. This stress response leads bonobos to seek social reassurance and they hug and share instead of fight.

Conflict Avoidance

5. Good Samaritans

Recent research at Lola has shown that bonobos are truly good Samaritans, perhaps even better than people. We prefer to help people we are related to, or people we know, rather than strangers. Bonobos do love to share, and feel empathy towards family and friends, but when given a choice, bonobos prefer to share food with strangers.

Good samaritans

6. Bonobo Handshake

The main way bonobos diffuse tension is certainly original – they have sex, or more specifically, they use social sexual contact. To strengthen their relationships, females will rub their genitals together. If anyone in the group, male or female, is feeling stressed, anxious, or irritated, someone will run over and give them a ‘bonobo handshake’. This kind of conflict resolution seems to be at the heart of their peaceful society.

Bonobo Handshake

7. Highly Endangered

Bonobos live only in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. They live in the Congo Basin, which is a huge forest, almost three times the size of France. However, the bushmeat trade has left them vulnerable to hunting. Bonobos are the most endangered great ape. No one is sure how many are left in the wild, but it could be as few as 5,000.

Where They Live