Bonobos, chimpanzees understand each other’s gestures

This 2015 video is called Chimpanzees & Bonobos – The Differences.

From PLOS Biology:

Bonobo and chimpanzee gestures overlap extensively in meaning

Kirsty E. Graham, Catherine Hobaiter, James Ounsley, Takeshi Furuichi, Richard W. Byrne

February 27, 2018


Cross-species comparison of great ape gesturing has so far been limited to the physical form of gestures in the repertoire, without questioning whether gestures share the same meanings. Researchers have recently catalogued the meanings of chimpanzee gestures, but little is known about the gesture meanings of our other closest living relative, the bonobo.

The bonobo gestural repertoire overlaps by approximately 90% with that of the chimpanzee, but such overlap might not extend to meanings. Here, we first determine the meanings of bonobo gestures by analysing the outcomes of gesturing that apparently satisfy the signaller. Around half of bonobo gestures have a single meaning, while half are more ambiguous. Moreover, all but 1 gesture type have distinct meanings, achieving a different distribution of intended meanings to the average distribution for all gesture types. We then employ a randomisation procedure in a novel way to test the likelihood that the observed between-species overlap in the assignment of meanings to gestures would arise by chance under a set of different constraints.

We compare a matrix of the meanings of bonobo gestures with a matrix for those of chimpanzees against 10,000 randomised iterations of matrices constrained to the original data at 4 different levels. We find that the similarity between the 2 species is much greater than would be expected by chance. Bonobos and chimpanzees share not only the physical form of the gestures but also many gesture meanings.

Author summary

Bonobos and chimpanzees are closely related members of the great ape family, and both species use gestures to communicate. We are able to deduce the meaning of great ape gestures by looking at the ‘Apparently Satisfactory Outcome’ (ASO), which reflects how the recipient of the gesture reacts and whether their reaction satisfies the signaller; satisfaction is shown by the signaller ceasing to produce more gestures. Here, we use ASOs to define the meaning of bonobo gestures, most of which are used to start or stop social interactions such as grooming, travelling, or sex.

We then compare the meanings of bonobo gestures with those of chimpanzees and find that many of the gestures share the same meanings. Bonobos and chimpanzees could, in principle, understand one another’s gestures; however, more research is necessary to determine how such gestures and gesture meanings are acquired.

This research is important for getting to know about the common ancestors of bonobos, chimpansees and humans.

Observations of bonobos in the Congo basin foraging in swamps for aquatic herbs rich in iodine, a critical nutrient for brain development and higher cognitive abilities, may explain how the nutritional needs of prehistoric humans in the region were met. This is the first report of iodine consumption by a nonhuman primate: here.

Researchers have revealed that chimpanzees and bonobos share the contrasting color pattern seen in human eyes, which makes it easy for them to detect the direction of someone’s gaze from a distance: here.

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