Bonobos Share Their Food and a Human Trait

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Sharing may seem like a small thing---we do it all the time. There's the neighbor who bakes you cookies or the co-worker who makes an extra cup of coffee for you. But sharing has been thought to be a uniquely human trait, not to be found in the animal world. For example, chimpanzees, our closest relative, won't share food. But what about bonobos, the chimp's more peaceful cousin?

Brian Hare, from Duke University, and Suzy Kwetuenda of Lola ya Bonobo, a bonobo sanctuary in Congo, conducted a small experiment with multiple pairs of bonobos living at the sanctuary. They placed one bonobo in a room with some food. That bonobo could then choose to eat all of the food itself or let in the other bonobo from an adjacent room and share the bounty (see video below).

More often than not, the bonobos chose to share their food. "Subjects preferred to voluntarily open the recipient's door to allow them to share highly desirable food that they could have easily eaten alone--with no signs of agression, frustration or change in the speed or rate of sharing across trials," the researchers write in an article that will appear in the March 8 issue of Current Biology.

The animals weren't sharing because of kinship---the bonobos weren't related---or to pay off past debts, since even bonobos that were complete strangers shared. Hare and Kwetuenda suggest that the bonobos were sharing "in an attempt to receive favors in the future from the recipients or due to a more altruistic motivation," much the same reasons that humans will share.

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