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The Last Great Ape

Read My Lips

Bonobos have many ways of letting other bonobos know what's on their mind. In this slide show, study a random sampling of bonobo facial expressions and gestures, and learn to tell the difference between, say, "Let's play!" and "Give me some food." All photos were taken by Dr. Amy Pollick of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta (see Resources). The bonobos live at the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Wild Animal Park (see credits for specifics).—Darby Proctor

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An adult bonobo plays "airplane" with a juvenile. Adults frequently play with younger bonobos, which serves to teach them some of the skills they'll need as adults.

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Jumanji, an adult male, holds the hand of Muhdeblu, a juvenile male. Hand-holding is a friendly gesture and often leads to playing, grooming, or an embrace.

Wing Structure
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Mchumba, a juvenile female, makes an intense play face while wrestling with an unidentified adult. The play face serves to ensure that both know that the interaction is play and not aggression. Like humans, bonobos make breathy "laughing" sounds during play.

Landing Gear
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Jumanji makes a play face while nodding toward Muhdeblu. Jumanji was soliciting play with Muhdeblu, who eventually acquiesced.

Tail Assembly
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Adult bonobos also play with other adults, a behavior that seems more common than in the other great ape species. Here, Ikela, an adult female, gives a hearty laugh while playing with Lolita, another adult female.

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How do bonobos beg for food? Lana, an adult female, demonstrates how by pursing her lips.

Bamboo Frame
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Lenore, an adult female, gives a bared-teeth grin to Lori, another adult female. This expression can be a friendly sign as seen here, but it can also signify fear. In this picture, it appears that Lenore is trying to get some of the food that Lori holds.

Tail Skid
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Sex, from simple kissing to copulation, is frequent among bonobos, and it takes many forms—females with females, males with females and other males, and older bonobos with younger ones. Here, Mchumba, the juvenile female, and Junior, an adult male, kiss. Kissing in bonobos is generally a sign of friendship and affection, and often serves as a greeting, much as in some human cultures.


We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.

Darby Proctor is a research assistant at the Living Links Center.

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