Click Here for Phil Regal's Home Page

Bonobos (Pan paniscus)

The bonobo, once misleadingly called the pygmy chimpanzee is as closely related to humans as any other animal species on earth. Genetically bonobos are most closely related to chimpanzees, but this pair of species are our closest relatives. They are both more closely related to us than they are to gorillas. Thus they are both extremely important as science attempts to work out the story of human evolution and to think through various theories of human nature.bonobos Regal Photo

Bonobos have some similarities to humans that other apes do not have, and thus they are especially important as research material and as models in scientific analysis. Some of the similarites are anatomical. These have to do with the shape of the skull, certain cells in the brain, the teeth, and the proportions of the body. Other similarities are biochemical, and of course genetic. It has been difficult from the beginning to ignore the fact that bonobos will stand and walk on two feet quite a bit, as illustrated in my photo to the right.

In some ways the most interesting unique similarities between bonobos and humans are behavioral, because humans are intensely interested in the nature and origins of their own minds and behaviors. Bonobos may help us to understand sexual and gender variety in humans. As with humans, bonobo sex is not restricted to reproduction. They will excite each other sexually several times a day in nature or captivity. This is most often not simply to mate or breed. That is, they do not necessarily simply copulate, and even copulation is not restricted to when females are ovulating. In this sense, females do not come into heat like most other non-human mammals do. Bonobo sex can be "erotic" and they are sometimes called "the Kama Sutra Ape." And obviously all this sex is not simply for courtship.Females and females commonly will stimulate each other. Males and males will stimulate each other. Males and females will stimulate each other even when the females cannot possibly get pregnant. Sex has a lot to do with bonding and keeping peace in their societies.

Bonobos also seem to be especially "intelligent." Intelligence is of course difficult to define and measure even in humans, but at least we can say that bonobos seem to have minds that are especially interesting zoologically because when we watch and study them "something" seems to be going on that looks more human than even in the other apes. It is extremely important for understanding the origins of the human mind that this research into the mental characteristics of bonobos and other apres continues and is extended.

One can argue that the bonobo is the most scientifically valuable animal on earth. But tragically it is on the brink of extinction. It was the last of the apes to be identified (discovered) by scientists, only in the late 1920s, and only on the basis of bones in a museum cabinet. It was the last of the apes to be located in nature, in the 1970s, so that studies could begin on natural populations. Tragically, now that we are at last beginning to understand how very unique and extremely important this cousin is, we may be about to lose it. It was always the rarest of the great apes, and now it may well be the most in danger of extinction in the wild. There are possibly only between 100 and 200 in all of captivity, and that may not be enough to preserve the species against inbreeding depression in the long run. So time is running out.

Bonobos are found naturally only in the Congo (formerly Zaire, and briefly Democratic Republic of the Congo, once the Belgian Congo, and NOT simply "Congo"), a vast county rich in minerals and other natural resources. Despite these riches local people were kept very poor for decades by corrupt govenments and powerful economic interests. Local poverty has always complicated the problem of conserving bonobos. People will eat bonobos, and more recently they began also to sell them for "bushmeat." Lumber companies built roads deep into forests and this made the bushmeat trade possible. The bosses also would encourage their employees to supplement their wages, rather than pay them more, by hunting and shipping the dried meat of various species of forest animals, many rare. These policies opened the export markets for the meat. There have been important efforts to control bushmeat traffic but it remains a battle.

In 1997 or 1998 a ruthlessly bloody civil war began in Zaire. It is called a civil war, but it involves many foreign nations and powerful international interests who profit from illegal trade in diamonds, coltan, gold and other materials, and also from arms sales. Congo moreover is located strategially in the center of Africa. So war is likely to go on. Three million people had been killed and millions more displaced as of early 2005. Yet brave and determined people are working hard to try to save what bonobos they can under extremely difficult conditions. They deserve medals. I have included a few links as a start to your learning about the conservation efforts. The situation is and will be very fluid, as one might imagine. So be prepared to google if you want to learn details.

Even back when the country was falling apart but US/European-supported Mobutu Sese Seko still nominally was dictator,
on April 14, 1997 The Wall Street Journal's Robert Block wrote a prophetic article headlined: "As Zaire's War Wages, Foreign Businesses Scramble for Inroads. Mining Firms Want a Piece of Vast Mineral Wealth; Diamonds Are Up For Bid. 'Logical Risk' in a 'New Era.' The article described how in the midst of chaos Zaire was "wide open for business" and "planeloads of foreigners" were landing to make sure they had good relationships with rebels and to make new deals. At that time millions of dollars were already being invested in mining and other facilities, indicating clearly that these companies were digging in for the long haul. Of course eventually other political and economic players across Africa and elsewhere wanted and got a piece of the action. Corporate and external money and so on have gone into financing the killing, and of course the arms industry became a special interest in the violence.There can be a lot of big money to be made in and even from chaos, no matter how disgustingly bloody it might seem to most observers. This fact of war profiteering is hardly new in human history.  In the Congo there are not forces in play to significantly counter within the foreseeable future the interests that perpetuate the bloodshed. Thus despite occasional "hopeful peace negotations" the socioeconomic structure is likely to resist true resolution.

The established conservation organizations have not been well organized to come to the aid of this species in Africa, especially under these enormously difficult and extremely dangerous conditions. Some players are better informed and positioned and more effective than others. It is simply remarkable that some very good bonobo preservation work by tactful, clever, and brave people has in fact been done! But some claim to be helping bonobos while in fact they give priority to other species. So if  you are thinking of contributing, do some very careful research first! The biggest and best known organisations may not be the best for this particular species. And some of the smaller ones may have problems as well.
Yet help is urgently needed, and some good is actually being done under these extremely difficult conditions. (July 2005)

Book Manuscripts in Progress
Who am I in all of this? I have written two book manuscripts on our close cousins the bonobos, a highly endangered species, and hope to talk with publishers when I get more time! Unfortunately, I have been juggling other important projects as well and also need time to polish some of the illustrations, and the introductory text for the one that is virtually finished.
Meanwhile, I would like to hear from other students of bonobos who want to swap talk, or to take some action to try to save this important species from extinction.

The first book manuscript is essentially complete except for the illustrations, and a rewriting of the Preface. It begins with a review and synthesis of the discoveries of the behavior and ecology of bonobos. This first half also goes beyond mere review and develops several perspectives that have not been considered in the primary literature or in the three available and excellent books, Bonobo by Frans DeWaal and Frans Lanting, Kanzi by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, The Pygmy Chimpanzee by Randall Susman, or The Last Ape by T. Kano.

The last half of my first book analyses the scientific controversies over the 'status' of bonobos and the implications of bonobos for science's understanding of human evolution, and places the bonobo controversies in the context of the history and sociology of science.

The second book manuscript is not so far along. It explores the implications of discoveries about bonobos for important long-standing and intellectually 'deep' issues in cultural anthropology, psychiatry, scientific epistemology, and theology.

I wear several hats
in my professional life because I have gone out of my way even starting in college to study to be, and to remain, a broad biologist rather than a specialist, which has become the more conventional track. I am a professor in a Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and I have made research contributions in all these fields over the decades.

When I watch bonobos it helps that I spent five years in the interdisciplinary training programs of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA and UCSD and that I have conducted behavioral research since.  It helps that I have made contributions to evolutionary biology that have involved analyses of bones and muscles as well as of molecules and ecology. I am also on the Graduate Faculty of the Graduate Program in Conservation Biology. I have long taught a course about the history and functions of "myths" or half-truths about nature (including human nature) in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, and I have been closely involved with Minnesota's Program in the History and Philosophy of Science.

It also is relevant that I have actually conducted original research in the history and philosophy of science, and given serious attention to the human mind and the human condition, as evident in my book The Anatomy of Judgment and other publications. Thus I come to bonobos with multiple perspectives. And this is very different from the scientists who have approached them from individual disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives such as paleoanthropology, physical anthropology, primatology, psychology, or ecology.Bonobos have been difficult for the scientific community to deal with.  In a sense they are too much like humans in too many ways, and yet they are obviously even closer to chimpanzees. So specialists too often ended  up arguing over the meaning of what can sometimes be small differences between bonobos, chimps, and humans. And in the back of their minds too many specialists have been concerned how the outcome might influence the theories about human evolution and human nature that they have been trained to defend. So there is still a great deal left for science to sort, out even from all of the information that we have learned already.

Book Review
See my review in Quarterly Review of Biology of Demonic Males  by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. My QRB review includes a criticism of, among other things, Wrangham and Peterson's misguided effort to reconcile bonobo biology with the authors' evolutionary story line about the genetic reasons for human wars and crimes of violence. But Demonic Males is a lot of fun to read, in any event, if you do not take the science as gospel. It is mostly about chimpanzees and tries to make the case that male humans are more or less hard-wired to be nasty because of our evolutionary history, for which, the authors claim chimps are the right model. This is a great oversimplification of what is in fact a very old idea. The book is aimed to be an attack on the anthropologists who stress the role of culture in making some societies war-like and others more peaceful. Because the argument is based on using chimpanzees as the model for the evolution of human nature, Bonobos have to be explained away as an irrelevant "side branch" -- even though both species are equally close to us in their genetics, and neither one is our direct ancestor! This does not make much sense as a way of dealing with all the empirical evidence that we are lucky enough to have from these two species and the other apes.

Links! Pan paniscus Links

Old set of links. Bonobo links was my older (1996) first effort to list webpages about bonobos.  The search engines still come up with it, so I will let you know what you missed even though it is no longer active. Next is that 1996 list of links, copied to this newer 2005 page for your convenience, and with comments added! Then the newest links follow below this older list.

    Search engines will in any event dig up a great many newer entries about bonobos. See below for some that I turned up that looked interesting. (However, search engines such as Alta Vista or Yahoo! will also list far too many duplicates and just plain commercial junk, using tricks to get multiple hits and make sales! AV was once my favorite, but it just seems to get worse and worse in this respect. I have switched to using mostly recently, which at present works in a way that is more respectful of its users than do some of the others.)

Updated Links ................

****    Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands is another great wildlife park in Europe to watch bonobos and other apes and monkeys. They did not have a research facility last time I was there. But it is a delightful place where you can walk among many species of free-living monkeys. The apes, in contrast to the monkeys, are enclosed by moats and can roam around in very nice enclosures. There are a few photos on this website.  

****  The Bonobo Page (Prof. WH Calvin) This is a very nice site. Professor, University of  Washington. Among other things the major zoos and wildlife Parks with bonobos are listed and discussed.

**** Try Bushmeat Project especially for conservation related information and links, more than basic biological information on bonobos.

**** Great Apes Trust New facility in Iowa, for apes that have been research subjects for years, such as the famous Kanzi. Many of the apes have been moved from the old Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia to these housing and study quarters that are much better suited for behavioral studies.They have built a very nice website with several video clips including footage of bonobos being introduced to this remarkable new facility, which is dedicated largely to the study of language and the mind in the great apes.

**** Dr. Jo Thompson's former webpage on her fascinating project at the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation  discusses a very important new field study on bonobos that she discovered in new type of habitat for this highly intelligent species. It is a sort of mosaic of savannah and forest that recalls the sort of habitat that many scientists have long speculated was important for human evolution. Whether or not this was actually the sort of habitat that we evolved in, it will be  very important to learn  how bonobos adapt their "talents" to living in this demanding sort of landscape. Jo has been a dynamic driving force to preserve this unique population of bonobos -- she is a phenomenon! Get to know her. At the moment her website is being rebuilt and relocated. So try googling for "Lukuru" if this link is no longer active. She has close ties to the Columbus Zoo. So also see their website. If you google, you will also learn that Jo was deservedly honored as an Associate Rolex Laureate for her important work.

**** Planckendael Wildlife Park, Belgium. If you are visiting Belgium the Plankendael Wildlife Park is one of the best places anywhere to watch bonobos. They also have a scientific research facility built right into their  bonobo enclosure. The scientists are connected to the university at Antwerp.
    There is now a webcam! The Critter WebCam Links also has links to other primate and other mammal webcams. When I checked on March 18, 2005 the Planchkendael cam itself was blank (but there were some photos there to see.) and the message for Bonobo Island said "De webcam staat 24 op 24 uren online! Enkel tijdens onderhoudswerken kan deze camera tijdelijk uitgeschakeld worden.Momenteel is bonobo Hortense zwanger en hebben we de camera verplaatst naar de binnenruimte. Zo kunnen onze wetenschappers haar dag en nacht nauwkeurig volgen." As near as I can tell, this means that the webcam is 24 hours online. but the camera can be eliminated during maintaintenance work temporarily. Currently bonobo Hortense is pregnant and we moved the camera to the working space so our scientists can follow her precisely day and night. 

**** Prosen Interview. This is an interesting interview with Wisconsin psychiatrist Dr. Harry Prosen who has been treating depressed and othewise disturbed apes in zoos. His first patient was a bonobo, and it is a fascinating story. The audio file is longer than the transcript. Dr. Posner expresses his opinion that empathy is more pronounced in bonobos even than in humans. Among the non-human apes bonobos would be tops, then orangs, then chimps.

**** Primate Info Nework is a good general gateway to primate information.

**** Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation This site includes a 20 minute film about a wonderful project in Kinshasa to save orphaned bonobos that come into town to be sold as meat, pets, or used in medical research. Click through to Lola ya Bonobo Project and find film. Also, the WWF has a nice webpage and it is worth looking at their other  projects and  publications.

[See CENSHARE home page  for some of my own photos of bonobos, and notes on them in a pop-up. I am no longer active in Censhare. Too busy. ]

Below are  bonobo
links that I have not checked out extensively.

Block Bonobo Foundation  Photo. "A beautiful female Bonobo, posing for our camera. Female using a ball as a sex toy. Going "Downtown." The Bonobo Way Peace Through Pleasure" 

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) calls itself a non-profit (USA: 501-c3) organization based in Washington, D.C. I know nothing about their effectiveness.

Bonobo Newsletter, Columbus Zoo This zoo has a good bonobo exhibit, offers good care for them, and also has been supportive of bonobo conservation.

Bonobo Protection Fund.
"The BPF is a group of international scientists and laypersons who are concerned with the future of one of mankind's closest living relatives, the Bonobo."  

          Bonobo Sex and Society by Frans B. M. de Waal and Frans Lanting Beautiful Photographs! Engaging annecdotes. Nice review of behavioral studies. 

Language Research Center The LRC is a world renowned primate research facility in Atlanta, Georgia associated with Georgia State University specializing in language research with an emphasis on work with bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees. Photos and biographies of most all bonobos at the LRC.

Primatology Department at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
-- a center for primate studies that includes research on bonobos. See also exhibit at local wildlife park, associated with Institute. zoolexcgi/

Click Here for Phil Regal's Home Page

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.