"Loving" Bonobos Seen Killing, Eating Other Primates

October 13, 2008

A type of chimpanzee known to use sex for greetings, reconciliations, and favors may not be all about peace, love, and understanding after all.

A new study reveals that some bonobos—one of humankind's closest genetic relatives—hunt and eat other primates.

Groups of the endangered chimpanzee subspecies were observed stalking, chasing, and killing monkeys they later consumed.

Scientists have long known from stool samples that some bonobos eat rodents and small antelopes in their natural forest habitats in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but many researchers thought this was the extent of their hunting activities.

Gottfried Hohmann and Martin Surbeck, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, thought differently.

"We saw that their relations with neighboring monkeys were frequently hostile and found a black mangabey finger in bonobo feces last year," Hohmann said. (See a photo of a mangabey.)

"We did not know if the mangabey had been killed by another predator and then scavenged by the bonobo or if the bonobo had killed the mangabey itself, but this raised our suspicions."

The researchers went on to observe bonobos attacking, killing, and eating monkeys. Their findings were published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

Pacifist to Predator

Six years ago, Hohmann and Surbeck began observing a previously unstudied community of bonobos in the DRC's Salonga National Park.

On five different occasions, the researchers saw traveling bonobos change their direction and silently approach monkeys in nearby trees.

Initially, several of the bonobos in the group would take up positions at tree bases and steadily gaze upward. Then, all at once, the positioned bonobos launched upward to attack the monkeys.

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