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“Peacenik” chimps not always so nice

Oct. 14, 2008
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

They’re some­times called “hip­pie chimp­s”—pro­lific lovers, in­hab­i­tants of female-headed so­ci­eties, rel­a­tively peace­a­ble to­ward their neigh­bors.

Ex­cept that last part is­n’t al­ways true, ac­cord­ing to a new study that puts in dent in the “make-love-not-war” im­age of bo­no­bo chimps. The stu­dy’s au­thors say they’ve seen sev­er­al cases of wild bo­no­bos hunt­ing down the young of oth­er pri­ma­te spe­cies for food.

A female bo­no­bo. (Cour­tesy Great Ape Trust of Iowa)


Bono­bos were thought to re­strict their mod­est meat di­et to for­est an­telopes, squir­rels, and ro­dents. That had put them in stark con­trast to closely re­lat­ed spe­cies such as chim­panzees, where males of­ten band to­geth­er to hunt and kill mon­keys. Hu­mans, too, are closely re­lat­ed to both chimps and bo­no­bos.

The un­ex­pected pred­a­to­ry lusts found among bo­no­bos chal­lenge a con­ven­tion­al the­o­ry that male dom­i­nance and ag­gres­sion must be caus­ally linked to hunt­ing, said Gott­fried Hoh­mann, one of the stu­dy’s au­thors.

It’s “rel­e­vant for the dis­cus­sion about male dom­i­nance and bond­ing, ag­gres­sion and hunt­ing,” added Hoh­mann, of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny. 

“In chim­pan­zees, male dom­i­nance is as­so­ci­at­ed with phys­i­cal vi­o­lence, hunt­ing, and meat con­sump­tion. By in­fer­ence, the lack of male dom­i­nance and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence is of­ten used to ex­plain the rel­a­tive ab­sence of hunt­ing and meat eat­ing in bo­no­bos.”

Bono­bos live only in the low­land for­est south of the riv­er Con­go. Along with chim­panzees, they are hu­mans’ clos­est ev­o­lu­tion­ary rel­a­tives. Bono­bos are per­haps best known for their promiscu­ity: sex­u­al acts both with­in and be­tween the sexes are a com­mon means of greet­ing, re­solv­ing con­flicts, or rec­on­cil­ing af­ter con­flicts.

Hohman­n’s team made its ob­serva­t­ions while stu­dying a bo­no­bo popula­t­ion liv­ing in LuiKo­tale, Sa­longa Na­tional Park in Con­go. The re­search­ers said they saw three cases of suc­cess­ful hunts in which bo­no­bos cap­tured and ate their pri­ma­te prey, and two failed hunts. Both bo­no­bo sexes seemed to play ac­tive roles the hunts, un­like the case with chim­pan­zees, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists.

The study appears in the Oct. 14 issue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­o­logy.


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They’re sometimes called “hippie chimps”—prolific lovers, inhabitants of female-dominated societies, relatively peaceable toward their neighbors. Except that last part isn’t always true, according to a new study that puts in dent in the “make-love-not-war” image of bonobo chimps. The study’s authors say they’ve seen several cases of wild bonobos hunting and eating the young of other primate species. Bonobos were thought to restrict their meat diet to forest antelopes, squirrels, and rodents. That had put them in stark contrast to closely related species such as chimpanzees, where males often band together to hunt and kill monkeys. Humans, too, are closely related to both chimps and bonobos. The unexpected predatory lusts found among bonobos challenge a conventional theory that male dominance and aggression must be causally linked to hunting, said Gottfried Hohmann, one of the study’s authors. It’s “relevant for the discussion about male dominance and bonding, aggression and hunting—a domain that was thought to separate chimpanzees and bonobos,” added Hohmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “In chimpanzees, male dominance is associated with physical violence, hunting, and meat consumption. By inference, the lack of male dominance and physical violence is often used to explain the relative absence of hunting and meat eating in bonobos.” Bonobos live only in the lowland forest south of the river Congo. Along with chimpanzees, they are humans’ closest evolutionary relatives. Bonobos are perhaps best known for their promiscuity: sexual acts both within and between the sexes are a common means of greeting, resolving conflicts, or reconciling after conflicts. Hohmann’s team made its observations while studying a bonobo population living in LuiKotale, Salonga National Park in Congo. The researchers said they saw three cases of successful hunts in which bonobos captured and ate their primate prey, and two failed hunts. Both bonobo sexes seemed to play active roles the hunts, unlike the case with chimpanzees, according to the scientists.