In A Nutshell
Although often mistaken as the same animal, chimpanzees and bonobos are two separate species within the same genus. They are 99.6 percent genetically similar to each other, but have different appearances and vastly unique social behaviors. The biggest differences between the two are in how they govern their societies: Chimps are led by an alpha male and tend to maintain order through aggression, while bonobos are dominated by females and keep the peace through sex.
The Whole Bushel
It’s commonly known that chimpanzees are humans’ closest living relatives, but what many don’t realize is that another great ape, the bonobo, also shares 98.7% of its genome with humans. Bonobos live exclusively in the Congo, and because of the long-term instability in the country, it’s been incredibly difficult to study them in the wild. Thus, bonobos remain the lesser known of the two apes and are often confused with chimps or are considered the same animal. In reality, they are two separate species with unique physical characteristics and dynamically different social behaviors.
Chimpanzees, (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) are the only two species in the genus Pan, and it’s believed they diverged from each other around two million years ago. Their genome is about 99.6 percent identical, and while they look very similar, there are a few physical differences that make them easy to tell apart. For one, bonobos are small and slender when compared to the taller, stockier chimps. Also bonobos have pink lips and black faces, while chimps have brown lips and faces that change color as they age. Another notable distinction is the bonobo’s longer head hair, which tends to part stylishly down the middle.
Although the physical variations between chimps and bonobos are interesting, what’s even more fascinating is their behavioral and social differences. Overall, bonobos have a “make love, not war” mentality, which is in stark contrast to the often aggressive and violent manner of chimps. For bonobos, sex is used for almost everything, including avoiding conflict, showing affection, reducing stress, solidifying social status, and simply saying “hello.” Bonobos are much more likely to keep the peace by offering a sexual favor, whereas a chimpanzee’s first instinct is to secure dominance through battle. In chimp groups, the highest-ranking male is the only one allowed to mate with the females, but in bonobo cultures, everyone has sexual freedom, and sex acts occur between all combinations of ages and genders.
Homosexual acts are especially common among female bonobos, which they use to create strong emotional bonds and maintain social dominance over the males. In fact, bonobos have peaceful, matriarchal societies. Chimps are led by an alpha male and occasionally kill each other. Chimp groups keep very strict boundaries, which they viciously defend. In contrast, bonobos allow for overlap in their territories and will even mate across community lines.
Other major differences between chimps and bonobos include their vocalizations, tool use, and territorial nature. For example, bonobos have higher-pitched voices, and chimps tend to hoot, scream, and grunt. Finally, while chimps are known to use tools to crack nuts, collects ants, and clip leaves, bonobos have only rarely used tools in captivity.
(The above image is of two bonobos.)