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Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

7 Relatable Facts About Bonobos

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Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

We share about 98.7 percent of our DNA with bonobos like the cheek-pinchingly sweet baby above. Bonobos are pretty much our cousins, but how well do we really know them?

1. DON’T CALL THEM CHIMPS.

Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Bonobos and chimpanzees are related, but they are different species in the genus Pan. Bonobos (Pan paniscus) live south of the Congo River and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) live north, which suggests, researchers say, that the river’s formation split one group of apes into two. Bonobos have a more slender build than chimpanzees; black faces and pink lips (for chimps, both features change coloration over time); and less sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance and size between males and females) than chimpanzees.

2. THE WORD BONOBO IS MEANINGLESS.

Aside from being the apes’ common name, the word bonobo has no meaning. Researchers believe the nonsense term may be the result of a misspelling on a shipping crate headed for the bonobo hotspot of Bolobo, Zaire, in the 1920s.

3. THEY LIKE SEX. A LOT.

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Pan paniscus is an impressively randy species, and its members aren’t choosy. Any age or sex will do; male/male and female/female pairings are just as common as female/male. They're tireless, too: Female bonobos hook up with one another about once every two hours. In addition to rubbing against each other, male bonobos also seem to enjoy dangling from trees while penis fencing

4. ALL THAT SEX SERVES A PURPOSE.

Primatologists believe the bonobos have sex for three reasons: pleasure, bonding, and peacekeeping. Female adults dominate bonobo societies, and some researchers say the constant humping is a way of reinforcing social ties. But they also resort to sex in times of stress or crisis. When a group of bonobos encounter a new food source, another band of bonobos, or a problem that requires cooperation, they don’t freak out. They get freaky. Scientists say the sex works to both defuse tension and inspire cooperation. It’s kind of genius, really.

5. THEY’RE WIRED FOR EMPATHY.

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In a famous 2011 experiment, scientists conducted brain scans on both chimpanzees and bonobos. They found clear structural differences: The brain regions associated with empathy, noticing distress in others, and anxiety were all larger in bonobos. Bonobos also had a thicker connection between the brain regions associated with aggression and impulse control—a connection that likely helps suppress antisocial behavior. 

6. THEY’RE AN UNWITTING POLITICAL BATTLEGROUND.

A left-wing/right-wing, bonobo/chimp divide has formed, unbeknownst to either species. Nonscientists on either side of the ideological divide have famously used generalizations about bonobo behavior to advance their ideology, and media outlets seem to take a certain delight in tearing down the bonobos’ (undeserved) angelic image. All primatologists like Frans de Waal can do is remind everyone to stick to the facts.

7. THEY’RE REALLY SMART.

Unsurprisingly, our bonobo cousins have pretty impressive brains. A male bonobo named Kanzi learned how to use a symbol-covered keyboard to communicate with researchers. When his keepers gave him primitive stone tools like those early humans would have used, Kanzi figured out how to use them. One one occasion, he also reportedly touched the symbols for “marshmallow” and “stick” on his keyboard, then started a fire and roasted his marshmallows.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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