Bonobos Offer Banana Bribes for Friendship

Chimpanzees will sooner kill than share food, but bonobos will sacrifice some of their own goods for the pleasure of interacting with strangers

Baby bonobos share papayas
Baby bonobos share papayas Photo from Jingzhi Tan

In 1719, Daniel Defoe wrote in Robinson Crusoe, ”He declar’d he had reserv’d nothing from the Men, and went Share and Share alike with them in every Bit they eat.” Defoe’s famous sharing phrase has persisted throughout the years, passing from parent to child as a lesson on the virtues of sharing with family, peers and even strangers.

But in the context of evolution and survival of the fittest, sharing makes no sense. Until now, scientists assumed that humans alone subscribed to this behavior, especially when it comes to sharing with strangers, and wrote the trait off as a quirk stemming from our unique cognitive and social development.

Sure, primatologists know that great apes help and voluntarily share food with other group mates (acts that indirectly benefits themselves). But strangers? Such a behavior is unheard of amidst species that often compete aggressively with other groups and even murder foreign individuals.

Researchers from Duke University decided to challenge the great ape’s bad sharing rep, seeking to discover whether or not our furry relatives may also have a propensity for partitioning goods with animals they do not know. The scientists chose bonobos–a type of great ape sometimes referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee–for their study. Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos possess a relatively high tolerance for strangers, so they seemed like a logical candidate for investigations into the nature of sharing.

At a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they enrolled 15 wild-born bonobos orphaned and rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in four experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers led a bonobo into a room piled high with delicious banana slices. Behind two sliding doors, they placed either a friend of the main bonobo or a stranger (a bonobo unrelated and unknown to their main research subject). The bonobo with the bananas could chose to eat the food all on its own, or open the sliding door and invite both or either the friend or stranger to join in. In the second experiment, they placed only one bonobo–either the friend or stranger–behind a door and left the second room empty.

The results, which they describe this week in the journal PLoS One, confounded the researchers. In more than 70 percent of the trials, the bonobos shared their food at least once. They preferred to release the stranger over their group mate, and the stranger in turn often released the other bonobo, even though that meant splitting the food three ways and being outnumbered by two bonobos that already knew each other. They ignored the door leading to the empty room, showing that the novelty of opening the door was not motivating their behavior.

So, were the bonobos willing to share their food with strangers because of an overwhelming desire to interact with the unknown apes, or were they motivated by a sense of altruism? The researchers set up two more experiments to find out. They arranged a rope which, when pulled, released either a bonobo stranger or friend into a room which held more bananas. A mesh divider separated the main bonobo from that room, however, meaning it could neither reach the food or interact directly with the released ape. Even when there was no immediate social or culinary reward on offer, the researchers found, 9 out of 10 bonobos still chose to release their friend or the stranger at least once, allowing the other ape to reach the banana reward.

Bonobos drew the line, however, in the final experiment. This setup allowed both bonobos to access the food, but did not let them interact physically with the stranger or friend. In other words, the main bonobo would have to forfeit some of its food but receive no reward of sniffing, petting or playing with another ape. None of the bonobos chose to open the door, suggesting that the seemingly altruistic sharing of the first two experiments was just a ploy to gain gratifying access to intriguing strangers and, to a lesser extent, friends. The third experiment, however, shows that the bonobos’ motivations are not completely selfish. When the food was so far out of reach that they themselves could not benefit, they allowed a friend or stranger to enjoy it instead.

Bonobos, in other words, break the rules when it comes to sharing, showing that kindness towards strangers is not unique to humans. Oddly enough, unlike their bipedal counterparts, bonobos even seem to prefer strangers to group mates. This behavior, the study authors think, might have evolved to help groups of bonobos expand their social networks. Further investigations may lend clues about evolution of sharing in humans.

“Like chimpanzees, our species would kill strangers; like bonobos, we could also be very nice to strangers,” said Jingzhi Tan, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and lead author of the paper, in a statement. “Our results highlight the importance of studying bonobos to fully understand the origins of such human behaviors.”

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