Bonobos have been at the forefront of scientific research for ages, and as it would seem, for an excellent reason. Every moment that scientists spend studying bonobos appears to result in some discovery that teaches us more about their behavior and lifestyle, which is quite good given the bevy of questions we still have about them.
Image Credit: Martin Surbeck
As you might come to expect, a lot of our questions revolve around the mating process and why some males are more successful than others, but new research published just this week in the journal Current Biology suggests that a male bonobo’s mother may play an instrumental role in that process.
"This is the first time that we can show the impact of the mother's presence on a very important male fitness trait, which is their fertility," explained Martin Surbeck, the study’s lead author from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "We were surprised to see that the mothers have such a strong, direct influence on the number of grandchildren they get."
Indeed, a bonobo mother helps to ensure her son’s mating success via a plethora of methods, including (but not limited to): dragging her son closer to ovulating females, scaring away competing males during her son’s copulation attempts, and intervening when another male besides her son would attempt to mate with a female.
In some cases, bonobo mothers would exploit their high ranks in their group such that their sons could have an increased chance of mating with a viable female.
The researchers happened upon these findings while studying wild bonobo populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, they learned that the mother’s influence over helping the son to find a mate was unique to bonobos and wasn’t a shared trait in the common chimpanzee.
Notably, bonobo mothers didn’t seem to bother helping their daughters find a viable mate, which isn’t too surprising given the male’s somewhat competitive role in the primate world.
"In bonobo social systems, the daughters disperse from the native community, and the sons stay," Surbeck added. "And for the few daughters that stay in the community, which we don't have many examples of, we don't see them receiving any help from their mothers."
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway here is that the bonobo mothers are ensuring their genetic success without physically taking part in the mating process themselves. Pitting their son(s) up with some of the most viable females gets the same job done.
The researchers still understand very little about this behavior, and so they’re planning to conduct additional research in the future that will shed more light on its effectiveness.
While having your mom’s help in finding a mate doesn’t seem like the most ideal circumstances in the world, it would still be interesting to learn whether this behavior has any impact on the male bonobos’ mating success rates and what it means for their reproductive success in the long-term.