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A mother bonobo and her infant. Photo by Takeshi Furuichi

English teacher Amy Parish Discusses Bonobo Apes

By Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Photo by Takeshi Furuichi
Below is an excerpt from an article about the study of bonobo apes, who are untraditionally a female-dominated society, where Anthropologist Amy Parish, Upper School English teacher, was interviewed. The articleIn the Bonobo World, Female Camaraderie Prevails” ran in The New York Times on September 10.

The female bonobo apes of the Wamba forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo had just finished breakfast and were preparing for a brief nap in the treetops, bending and crisscrossing leafy branches into comfortable day beds.

Remarkably, the female partners in a bonobo posse cooperated with one another despite lacking any ties of blood or even close friendship. As the so-called dispersing sex, female bonobos must leave their birthplaces before puberty and find another social set to join, which means that none of the adult females in a given bonobo community are kin.

Moreover, female bonobos rarely formed coalitions with their preferred girlfriends — the individuals they spent the most time with and groomed the most ardently. Instead, the researchers found, coalitions arose when a senior female would step in and take the side of a younger peer caught up in an escalating conflict with a resident male.

By delivering the formidable luster of her social standing, as well as an extra pair of hands, the intervening senior pretty much guaranteed that the skirmish would break her way.

The new results add depth and complexity to our emerging understanding of Pan paniscus, the enigmatic, lithe great ape with the dark licorice eyes, who lives only in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is seriously endangered. The bonobo is a sister species to the more widespread common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, and the two share equal footing as our nearest primate kin.

Yet the apes have followed distinctly different behavioral paths. Chimpanzee society is male-dominated and features strong bonds between adult males and feeble ties between females.

In the bonobo world, by contrast, female camaraderie prevails, while the bonds between males are weak. “It’s a matriarchy,” said Amy Parish, a primatologist at the University of Southern California. “Females are running the show.”


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