Lonely Planet Writer

Is this the world's friendliest animal? Bonobo apes will help strangers without being asked

Bonobo apes are our most closely related animal cousins and share 99% of our DNA. But that’s not the only thing we have in common. New research has shown how the famously friendly apes are incredibly generous, exhibiting behaviour that scientists had once believed was confined to humans.

Bonobo apes are kind to strangers. Image by Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

According to the study, bonobos will go out of their way to help strangers … even when there is no guarantee of any payback. During previous research, scientists from Duke University had discovered that Bonobo apes would share their food with strangers. As part of a new series of experiments, they enlisted the help of apes from the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sixteen bonobos were led into one of two adjacent rooms separated by a large fence. The researchers then hung an apple from a rope just above the empty room, out of reach but easy for the animals to see. The bonobos could not access the fruit or the rope it hung from … but if they climbed the fence they could reach a wooden pin that would let the dangling fruit drop.

The apes share their food even if they won’t get it back. Image by Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

According to their findings, the apes were four times more likely to release the fruit when there was another bonobo in the other room, as compared to when it was empty. The bonobos did not need to be asked for help either, and would often free the fruit irrespective of whether the ape in the other part of the room looked for assistance. Jingzhi Tan of Duke University said being nice to strangers generally evolves in species where the benefits of bonding with outsiders outweigh the potential costs. “All relationships start between two strangers,” he said. “You meet a stranger, but you may meet them again, and this individual could become your future friend or ally. You want to be nice to someone who’s going to be important for you.”