Bonobos Comfort Each Other After Fights

Two young bonobos. Photo by Angi English via Flickr Creative Commons

Young bonobos who grew up with their mothers aren’t shy about offering a sympathetic hug to a fellow ape in distress, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What’s more, they are quick to recover from their own upsetting experiences

The findings suggest that young bonobos exhibit striking similarities in emotional development to human children, where the ability to control emotions, such as anger and sadness, is linked to the ability to empathize.  In other words, for both humans and apes, the sooner they can get over their own emotional issues, the sooner they can help others. 

It has already been well documented by scientists that bonobos are the most “empathetic apes.”  Another study earlier this year found that young bonobos frequently console and make up with their friends, not only with hugs, but also with sex. (In fact, throughout the bonobo society, intercourse functions in communication, conflict resolution, affection, excitement and even stress reduction – which is why you are not likely to see them on public display in zoos.)

But why do some bonobos recover better than others from confrontations?  The researchers found that it all came down to whether or not the young apes had been raised by their mothers. 

The study was conducted at the Olola ya Bonoboo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where survivors of bush-meat hunting are cared for and rehabbed by humans.  Those that had been orphaned by hunting had a much more difficult time managing their emotions and would remain screaming for minutes after a tif.  Those that had been fortunate enough to spend time with Mom when growing up would snap out of it and help others that had been orphaned.  Again this seems to be very similar to human children, where a stable parent-child bond has been shown to be essential for tykes to learning to regulate the ups and downs of their emotions. 

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