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

7 Relatable Facts About Bonobos

Pierre Fidenci via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
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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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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