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Pan paniscus

Description: The bonobo was identified as separate from the common chimpanzee in 1929, when experts studied a captive member of the species in a Belgian colonial museum. The bonobo is the closest living relative of humans, sharing more than 98 percent of our genetic profile. This is as close as a fox is to a dog. The split between the human line of ancestry and the line of the chimpanzee and the bonobo is believed to have occurred millions of years ago.

Social structure: Bonobos live in multi-male, multi-female, fission-fusion communities. They travel in mixed gender, foraging groups daily. These groups are not fixed; members move from group to group regularly. Groups come together nightly to form a larger "troop" which nests in the same area, probably for protection. In the morning, they will break into foraging groups again, the size of which is dependent upon food availability. Males remain in their mother's group for life while females emigrate. A bonobo community might have 50-200 members—foraging groups might be as small as 1-6 members.
In contrast to chimpanzees, bonobo society is female dominant. A male gets his rank in the group from his mother. The son of the dominant female is the highest ranking male in the group, and he will hold this rank as long as his mother is alive or remains the dominant female. Usually the older females in the group are the high-ranking females.

Pictures: Dave Liggett (Zoo keeper in African Forest) has fascinating pictures of bonobos. Visit Dave's web site at

Head-body length is 28 to 30 inches for females and 29 to 33 inches for males. Weight, 65-75 pounds for females and 75-100 pounds for males.

The bonobo is restricted to the lowland rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) between the Congo (Zaire) and Kasai Rivers. Even within its range, it occurs only sporadically.

Diet: Bonobos are considered omnivores although they primarily eat fruits, vegetables, leaves, and seeds/nuts. Researchers have seen them eat small mammals in the wild, but have never seen them hunt for meat. Eating meat may be opportunistic in nature and, in captivity, bonobos are strictly herbivores.

Lifespan: Bonobos can live as long as 50 years in captivity.

Reproduction: Females mature at around ten years old; males earlier. The average gestation period is 244 days.

Status: Bonobos are endangered due to destruction of their forest habitat and bushmeat hunting. Estimates of their population range from 5,000 to 20,000 animals.

Facial expressions: Bonobos and chimpanzees have a variety of facial expressions to communicate and show mood.

Click to see face

Calling Face: When calling to one another they switch between the two calling expressions. These "pant hoots" are made in order to alert and greet one another.
Aggressive Face: Sometimes called the "display face", this is a sign of aggression or impending attack.
Open Grin: Usually indicating fear or submission to a superior, this may also be used in times of excitement.
Play Face: Shown particularly by juveniles during play.
Pouting: Indicates dissatisfaction.
Closed Grin: A sign of submission.

Name: The name "bonobo" is derived from the town of Bolobo which lies on the Zaire River in the western area of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sex: Bonobos live a relatively peaceful life compared to chimpanzees. This is due largely to the fact that female bonobos are eight times more available to males for mating and there are equal numbers of females to mature males so there is less fighting for mating rights. Sex is an important way to ensure group stability and ease tensions. Bonobos substitute sex for aggression, and sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Reduced male aggression, strong bonds between males and females, and frequent sex (including male-to-male and female-to-female) characterize bonobo society. However, the rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of chimpanzees (a single infant is born every five to six years) beginning at age 12.

Frequently asked questions about bonobos:

What is that big thing on the bottom?
The female genitalia is on the outside. During her monthly cycle (estrus), the bonobo genitalia will swell.

What are they doing?
Bonobos engage in sexual activities of all sorts— frequently for purposes other than breeding. They use heterosexual and homosexual activities to release excitement and tension. Any erotic behavior employed by man is also used by bonobos.

Why is the bonobo considered man's closest living relative?
More than 98% of bonobo DNA is like that of human's and it is a fraction of a percent closer to human DNA than that of the common chimpanzee. Man is the closest living relative to both the bonobo and the chimpanzee. In other words, the bonobo and the chimp are closer to humans than they are to gorillas.

How are bonobos different from chimpanzees?
Chimps resolve sex issues with power; bonobos resolve power issues with sex. Bonobos believe in "make love, not war." Chimps are known for making war. Physically, bonobos are smaller, darker, hairier around the face, and more erect than chimps.

How intelligent are bonobos?
Without going into a lot of detail defining intelligence in ape terms, suffice it to say that bonobos are very intelligent. Observe their tool use and their ability to organize intricate social relationships. Scientific studies also reveal that bonobos have a sense of self (they recognize themselves in a mirror). Only apes have shown this ability.

What is the difference between apes and monkeys?
Monkeys have tails and apes do not.
Note: one monkey, the barbary macaque, does not have a tail.


In contrast to monkeys, apes:

  1. Are larger.
  2. Are heavier.
  3. Are more upright and broader in the chest.
  4. Hang below branches rather than balancing on them.
  5. Are more reliant on vision than smell.
  6. Have a larger brain relative to body size.
  7. Are more neurologically complex and have longer gestation periods, a lengthy maturation process, and a great deal of parental involvement.

To learn more about Bonobo conservation, visit these links:
Lukuru Wildlife Research Project
PASA-Pan African Sanctuary Alliance
2003 Bonobo Newsletter

2001 Columbus Zoo Conservation Report
2001 Columbus Zoo Annual Report

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