Pan paniscus, or Bonobos, are an interesting species. They, as well as the Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), are our closest relatives and there is much that can be learned from them. Upon first hearing about this I was shocked to say so in the least because I had always thought that the chimpanzee was our closest relative and had not heard of there being any other. I had also never heard of anything with a silly name like bonobo; it sounded awfully close to the word “bozo” with an extra silly syllable and there was no way I was going to acknowledge being closely related to the “bozo.” Well, now you can consider me converted.
Despite being both of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, however, can behave very differently, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. Bonobos are somewhat known for their sexual behavior; you could say they are infamous for it. They have sex outside of their respective fertile periods, which really emphasizes the “interaction” of sexual interaction. It also often occurs with members of the same sex, not solely opposite sexes. Each and every bonobo group that has been observed, both through wild fieldwork as well as those observed in captivity, have exhibited what is known as genito-genital (GG) rubbing (Parish et al., 2000). This is when two female bonobos engage in a sexual act in which they rub genitals with one another. Chimpanzees have not been observed participating in this behavior, it seems they are uninterested in the bonobo “sexcapades.”
With that being said, the bonobo takes sexual behavior to a whole different level. It becomes much more than a simple action used for reproduction. It has been concluded that sexual behavior between bonobos is not only for reproductive purposes but also for a multitude of other reasons. Bonobos engage in sexual activities to demonstrate affection, as a result of excitement, as a means of conflict resolution, and even alliance building and maintaining. It has also been observed to be used as an overall stress-reliever. Because of this use of sex in social interactions, bonobos essentially manage social situations nonviolently, really giving meaning to the phrase “make love, not war.” This means much less competition amongst males, which is another difference between chimpanzee and bonobo behavior. Bonobos seem much more relaxed and, if we can be anthropomorphic for a minute, happy.
This could be grounds to take a closer look and maybe extend the study to human sexual behavior, for we are also apes that engage in sexual activities without the intention being to procreate. For us, a number of the reasons for engagement that I listed are perfectly applicable as well. Though bonobos may be a little more transparent in terms of their sexual behavior, behind closed doors, humans can be just as sexually aggressive. It could be a very interesting study, I think we could find that we are, in fact, very closely related, even if no one would want to admit it!
Here are a couple of pictures of bonobos!