Animals offspring, Biology, Fundamentals, Psychology

Sisterhood Is Powerful: The Bonobo Animal Mother

bonobo animal mother

Human mothers could learn a few things from a bonobo animal mother. One of the most important parenting skills of the bonobo animal mother is mastering group dynamics. In addition to being smaller than their cousins, the chimpanzee, one of the distinguishing features of the bonobo is their matriarchal society. Despite being smaller than the males, through the power of sisterhood, female bonobos enjoy superior social status. Bonding together, they present a united front in support of the alpha female.

One of the bonding mechanisms of peaceful bonobo society is sexuality, which is utilized for many purposes other than reproduction. In fact, sexual activity between females is common, and serves a variety of purposes in addition to creating strong bonds. Bonobos are non-monogamous, and rather sexuality being a form of exclusive commitment, it is instead a form of social diplomacy. It may be one of the reasons that rank is less important in bonobo society than in those of other primates.

Sex among bonobos serves many of the same purposes that it does for humans. Sexual behavior is engaged in to de-escalate aggression, express excitement, or even as a form of greeting. Whatever the reason, the result is usually an increase in sharing and compassion. These beneficial effects of sexuality have been described by sex therapist Dr. Susan Block in her book “The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace Through Pleasure”.

Similarities and Differences Between the Human Mother and the Bonobo Animal Mother

Motherhood has its privileges, and as the sole guardians of future generations, one of those privileges is control over the food supply. Even though bonobo society is a relatively peaceful and harmonious one, bonobo animal mother is a fierce defender. Banding together, the females will attack any male bonobo that poses a threat to the resources necessary to care for their young. They have even been known to bite off fingers and toes.

Males are afforded social status only through the acceptance and consent of the alpha female. The rank of the male is dependent upon the rank of his mother, the sons of alpha mothers enjoying the highest rank among the males. Child-bearing age for the bonobo animal mother begins between 13 and 14 years of age. Unlike human mothers, they only give birth every five to six years. During those five years, the bonobo animal mother carries and nurses her offspring.

Our Genetic Link to the Development of Empathy

Genetically, humans have more in common with the bonobo than most people realize. In fact, humans share 98.7% of their DNA with bonobos. Human lineage diverged from that of chimpanzees and bonobos over five million years ago. Chimpanzees and bonobos diverged only two million years ago, so they still share 99.6% of the same genomes. Unfortunately, the Bonobo, which live along the Congo River, have become an endangered species. In order to preserve them, and everything we can still learn about ourselves through them, an animal sanctuary was created in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There, researchers Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal of Emory University were able to further study study their social behavior. Their focus was on the emotional development of bonobos as expressed by consolatory behavior after experiencing distress during a negative social interaction. The results of their study demonstrated many developmental similarities between bonobos and human children. One of those similarities was the importance of the relationship between mothering and the development of empathy for others.
It was found that orphaned bonobos cared for by the animal sanctuary displayed less empathy and conciliatory behavior than those cared for by their mothers. As with humans, conciliatory behavior includes affectionate touching upon meeting after having distanced as the result of an accidental injury during horseplay or a dispute. Those cared for by their mothers were able to regulate their emotions more effectively, displaying conciliatory behavior sooner than the orphaned bonobos. In human terms, they were less likely to hold a grudge after having been offended or injured.
Empathy and conciliatory behavior is even more important for humans, which experience sibling rivalry as well as social competition for resources. Humans have also developed dangerously sophisticated weaponry with which to resolve their disputes. All parents would do well to foster, and expand, the capacity for empathy found in bonobo society, or we too may one day become an endangered species.
bonobo animal mother
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