Monday, 2 July 2018

Study of bonobos finds that day care pays off for the babysitters

June 19, 2018 by Jim Barlow, University of Oregon

Drawn to a behavior she didn't understand, a UO researcher watching bonobos in a zoo has revealed how young female bonobos prepare for motherhood.

"After studying bonobos for several years, I noticed that juveniles and adolescents were obsessed with the babies," said Klaree Boose, an instructor in the UO Department of Anthropology. "They played with the babies and carried them around. It appeared to be more than just play behavior."

Her findings, now online, will be part of a special issue of the journal Physiology & Behavior. The study documents how young females acquire maternal skills and forge alliances that pay off in times of hostility by handling infants, whether they are related to them or not.

The research, done with captive bonobos at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, also explains behaviors that scientists have seen but only focused on in the wild, said study co-author Frances White, head of the UO's anthropology department. White has studied bonobos in their natural habit in Africa for years.

"It is common in the wild to see infant bonobos be a focus of enormous interest to others, especially to adolescent bonobos," White said. "It is often noticeable how bonobo mothers are willing to let others get close and interact with their infants, as compared to chimpanzees who are more restrictive."

This study, she said, allowed the team to take that knowledge and explore individual relationships in a way that has not been done in the wild.

"The Columbus Zoo has done a wonderful job of copying wild behavior in letting the bonobos divide on a day-by-day basis into different groupings, much as they do in the wild," White said. "This zoo setting made this kind of study, which looks at normal wild behaviors, possible."

Bonobos in the wild live in a small area of the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are often mistaken as chimpanzees but are a separate species. The females hold high-ranking positions and often form female-female coalitions that stand up to males.

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