Bonobo apes comfort each other when they are in distress, giving an indication that this kind of emotional outreach is more hard-wired that scientists thought.
It also gives an insight into how this social interaction may have developed in humans.
These are some of the findings by researchers from the Emory University in Atlanta, USA. They observed the behaviour of bonobos at a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These great apes are a curiosity because they display many social actions that are similar to humans, like forming close relationship and keeping the peace between individuals.
But all of this was previously thought to require sophisticated mental ability, which scientists only thought adults possessed.
The research’s specific focus was therefore on juvenile bonobos (between the ages of three and seven), which they found to be consoling each other more than adults were. The results were published in the journal Plos One.
Dr Zanna Clay, a postdoctoral fellow at the university, said, “Our findings suggest that for bonobos, sensitivity to the emotions of others emerges early and does not require advanced thought processes that only develop in adults.”
While many of the bonobos at the sanctuary are orphans – their parents were killed for meat or captured as pets – a minority were raised by their biological mothers. These were found to be more likely to comfort other bonobos than the orphans.
Clay spent several months recording over 350 fights between the bonobos at the sanctuary. These ranged from chasing each other around, to outright violence. And in many of these cases a third bonobo would come and comfort one of the fighters.
This consolation would usually be reserved for close friends and family and included hugging, grooming, and sometimes sexual behaviour.
“We found strong effects of friendship and kinship, with bonobos being more likely to comfort those they are emotionally close to. This is consistent with the idea that empathy and emotional sensitivity contribute to consolation behaviour,” said Clay.