July 10, 2006

Bonobos: A Matriarchal Society

After the wonderful piece on how bonobos are capable of learning to talk on NPR Saturday morning, I was excited to hear another piece on bonobos on this week's Living On Earth. Steve Curwood interviewed Dr. Amy Parish about her studies on bonobos which she describes as the make-love-not-war species. She told Steve that the people hadn't realized that the bonobo was a separate species from chimpanzees until the 1920s. But where the chimpanzee has a strongly patriarchial society with lots of dominance behaviors, the bonobo has a totally different society where one observes a lot more affilative behavior and a lot of sexual interaction going on. Sexual interactions are often used to relieve tensions and aggression.

But most remarkably, females really are in charge in this society. Males get their status through their mothers and when a high status mother dies, the son loses what status had been his through her. Dr. Parish says that people get very disturbed when they watch bonobo interactions and see how the females actually do rule. When they see females attack a male, they think that there is something wrong with the male and they will intervene to stop the behavior. She noted that when male chimps bully female chimps people don't feel compelled to step in as the behavior is so natural. And she laughed as she mentioned that some observers have decided that the males must be allowing themselves to be bullied because they are being chivalrous. They call it "strategic male deference" and theorize that it allows the male to get more sex so they do it on purpose.

Amy Parish and bonobo friend

Dr. Parish told about some of her more remarkable encounters with these creatures during her years of study.

PARISH: Another example that might seem a little unsavory if you're not a biologist, but I used to collect fecal samples on all of the females so that I could analyze the samples for estrogen and progesterone. I wanted to look at cycle state and how it correlates with behavior. And so I was allowed to watch the bonobos in their indoor sleeping cages before they were let out into their daytime enclosure, and then the idea was once they were released I could go in and pick up the samples.

So Lana had a sample in her hand that I really needed because I knew she was approaching ovulation, and so I held out my hand and wiggled the ends of my fingers, which is a typical bonobo begging gesture. And she knew I was begging for something but she couldn't figure out what it was she was turning around in circles and looking on the floor. And finally she looked at her hand, and looked at me, and looked at her hand, and then she just held it out and I took it from her. And I thought, 'oh, this is wonderful, I'm going to have to train the bonobos to just give me their samples.'

Well, the very next day I came in and she handed me a sample. And by the end of the week, all four adult females were just giving me these fecal samples, which was very heartening. As a biologist, it made my job a lot easier. [LAUGHS]

And years later I went to the zoo in Stuttgart, where one of the females who had been too young to collect on during the time when I was collecting fecal samples, had been transferred to this zoo from North America to Europe. I'd only collected on her mother, not on her, and she hadn't seen me in four years. And as soon as she saw me, she went away and got a fecal sample and brought it over to me. [LAUGHS] So she clearly recognized me as that woman who wants to have fecal samples, even though all of that time had passed. And the keepers at the Stuttgart Zoo said she'd never done that with anyone else.

But I think my favorite, when I returned to the San Diego Wild Animal Park after I'd had my own son, who's named for a bonobo his name is Kalen, named after the first bonobo I ever met. So I took my son to the Wild Animal Park and Lana was very excited to see me. She was standing up and vocalizing and clapping her hands. She was looking at Kalen, and looking at me, and then she disappeared. And she came back with her new baby that I hadn't seen yet, and she held him up in front of me, she suspended him by his arms and held him there. And it was very clear she recognized that I had had a baby, and she wanted to let me know that she had also had a baby. It was just a very touching moment.

Bonobos are greatly endangered these days as the forests in which they live are shrinking due to the encroachment of humans. However, a new initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo managed by the indigenous people has been formed to provide them a refuge. Visit the Bonobo Conservation Initiative to check it out and see what you can to help.

Do listen to the whole segment.

Posted by Mary at July 10, 2006 11:31 PM | Science | Technorati links |

Israeli Warplanes Target Suspected Hezbollah Bunker in Beirut

look at this --- loosk like the major story of the day

Posted by: brent at July 19, 2006 04:54 PM