Bonobos, not chimpanzees, are our closest living animal relatives, and researchers from the University of Pisa and CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon have just discovered that they’re even more like us than ever realized before.
Female bonobos, it turns out, practice midwifery, reports Phys.org.
It’s the first time that animals other than humans have ever been observed physically assisting one another during the delivery of a baby. The behavior has now been noted on at least three separate occasions among captive bonobos, at different primate parks in France and The Netherlands.
The assisted births involve a number of elaborate behaviors that usually begin with females within a troop recognizing when one of their own begins to enter labor. They then gather around the female giving birth and offer her protection from males who might interrupt. They also swat flies and other pests away and help to keep the exposed genitals clean. The bonobo midwives monitor the progress of the birth by frequently sniffing at birth fluids. They even typically reach out to catch the baby as it is delivered.
Bonobo midwives also tend to be mothers themselves, so they are familiar with the experience of giving birth.
While the advanced and familiar behavior is surprising, it’s not out of character for these apes. Female bonobos are known for their strong bonds, and unlike with chimpanzees, female social groups tend to be dominate over male bonobos.
Researchers speculate that the behavior could mean that midwifery is an inherent trait that humans and bonobos both shared with a common ancestor.
More studies, especially of bonobos in the wild, will be needed to determine whether this is unique behavior or if it is inherent in the species. Regardless, though, it’s just another example of how behavior once believed to be the exclusive domain of humans is not so exclusive after all. We share far more in common with our ape cousins than we differ.