The Bonobo Alternative

Bonobos are so similar to chimpanzees in physical appearance that it took biologists many years to recognize that they are a separate species. Their behavior, however, is very different. Unlike in chimp societies, where males may violently coerce females to respect them, in bonobo land the females run the show. They manage this feat by forming close alliances with each other and facing down any male who tries to interfere in their affairs. Because of their dominance, they have managed to banish infanticide, the worst fear of female chimpanzees. Bonobos have captured the attention of their human observers because they use sex not just for reproduction but also as a social greeting and general reconciliation technique. Bonobo sexual physiology has a small but socially critical difference from that of chimpanzees. Male chimpanzees seem to be able to tell, probably by smell, the almost exact time when a female is ovulating, setting off fierce competition for her favors. But bonobo ovulation, as with humans, is concealed. The males, who get to have sex with the females almost all the time anyway, do not enter into ferocious competition with each other because the goalpost, as it were, is no longer in sight. Bonobo social arrangements do a superb job, from the female point of view, of making paternity utterly obscure.

Bonobo communities are considerably less aggressive to each other than are those of chimpanzees. There are no border patrols by groups of males looking for trouble. Groups from two communities have even been observed mingling peacefully, to the astonishment of chimpanzee biologists. Why is bonobo behavior so different from that of chimpanzees? The answer seems to be that bonobo society has evolved in adaptation to a subtle but profound difference in the bonobo environment. Following is the analysis offered by Richard Wrangham, a chimpanzee expert at Harvard University, based in part on the observations of bonobos by the Japanese primatologist Takayoshi Kano and his colleagues. At first sight, there is no obvious ecological difference between chimp habitat and bonobo habitat. They both live in tropical rain forests, although the chimps inhabit some more open woodland as well. Chimps are found all across tropical Africa, from the west coast to the east, but bonobos live south of the Zaire river, and chimps live north of it.

The river is a barrier, and south of the river there are no gorillas. Gorillas are voracious eaters of herbaceous plants. The chimps north of the river, who share their territory with gorillas, eat only fruit, leaving the herbs for the gorillas. But the bonobos south of the river eat both, and their teeth are specially adapted for shearing herbs.

This difference in diet has far reaching consequences. Female chimpanzees forage alone, in their core feeding areas, because that is the most efficient way to get enough to eat. But since bonobo forests have more sources of food, bonobos can travel in larger parties with a more stable membership. This gives the females the opportunity to bond together, which they do with the usual bonobo social lubricant—plenty of sex. "Party stability, in

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