Bonobos: Female Dominance in a Bi-sexual Primate Society


The bonobo, Pan paniscus, is a great ape that belongs to the same genus as the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes. Both primates share about 98% of the same genes as humans. (De Waal 1995) Bonobos are known for engaging in bi-sexual interactions and unlike the male-dominated chimpanzees, male bonobos seem to be ruled by their female counterparts. (De Waal 1995) (Hohmann and Fruth 2000)


Sex between and within gender groups is an essential part of social dealings among bonobos. Such behaviour is relatively unheard of in the animal kingdom, where sex is driven solely by the need to reproduce. It is more similar to human behaviour. For the bonobos, sex is a way to ease tension, reconcile or form female alliances. (De Waal 1995) (Hohmann and Fruth 2000)


Female alliance

When a female bonobo reaches adolescence, she ventures out in search for another community while the males remain in the same group. Once she finds a new community, she engages in genito-genital rubbing (GG rubbing) and grooming with a few of the senior females in an attempt to create a bond. If this is reciprocated, a close bond is established and she is accepted into the community. (De Waal 1995) Also, a less dominant female will seek for same-sex genital contact more often than a more dominant female. (Hohmann and Fruth 2000) This regular sexual contact, which leads to close relations, results in an alliance among female bonobos. As a result, they are more able to fight against the independently stronger males than if they were alone. This could explain the female dominance in the community. (De Waal 1995)



The dominance of bonobo females is evident in various aspects such as feeding order and in the level of dependence males have on their mothers. When food is available, females engage in GG rubbing and proceed to feed first. The males may attempt to make charging demonstrations but the females pay no attention. (De Waal 1995) Also, male bonobos are very dependent on their mothers. Mothers support their sons even into adulthood and are relied on for protection when their sons are in conflict with other males. (Surbeck, Mundry and Hohmann 2011) (De Waal 1995) It is therefore apparent how dominant females are in the community.




De Waal, B. M. Frans. “Bonobo Sex and Society .” Scientific American , March 1995: 59-64.

Hohmann, G., and B. Fruth. “Use and function of genital contacts among female bonobos.” Animal Behaviour 60 (July 2000): 107-120.

Surbeck, Martin, Roger Mundry, and Gottfried Hohmann. “Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos (Pan paniscus).” Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 278 (February 2011): 590-598.

Flach, Tim. “[Animal Portraits.]” Photograph. From ABC News Network: More Than Human. (accessed April 7, 2013)