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Episode 1: Bonobos (Pan paniscus) - Transcript

Hannah walks Ilana and Elizabeth through the discovery, appearance, ecology and queerness of the bonobo (Pan paniscus), a dark-haired ape found in the Congo Basin. Hint: for a little foreshadowing, take a look at that genus name!


Species introduction: 0:52

History of discovery: 2:11

Description of the bonobos’ looks: 5:55

Bonobo ecology (day-to-day life): 11:26

Bonobo ecology (social group formation): 17:35

Queerness of bonobos: 20:45, 33:04, 39:49

General discussion: 26:53, 37:22

Content warnings: white supremacy (3:16-3:52; 21:30-21:52; 22:32-23:00), animal welfare in captivity (7:52-8:12), human parenting in regards to kids leaving home (19:42-20:04), description of sex and explanation of the term missionary position (21:02-23:00), genitalia (23:28-23:44), homophobic science (31:41-32:43), frequency of bonobo sexual acts (33:52-35:20), description of sexual positions (36:55-37:17)


Ilana (I): Hi everyone, welcome to today's episode of Queerly Natural where we talk about queerness in the natural world. We discuss different traits and qualities of animals, plants, fungi, and more and how they relate to queer identities in humans. Some may argue our identities are not natural and we are here to say, they queerly are! We are your hosts:

I’m Ilana,

Hannah (H): I’m Hannah,

Elizabeth (E): And I’m Elizabeth. We are so excited for y'all to hear this week's episode on Bonobos. Hannah does such an amazing job explaining just what are Bonobos and why are they queer. Do bonobos live up to their Latin name, Pan paniscus? You'll have to listen to find out. Enjoy the pilot episode of Queerly Natural.

H: Today on Queerly Natural we will be talking about the Bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee.

E: That’s a weird name.

I: Tiny Monkeys.

H: Tiny monkey!

I: Well, not monkey but close enough..

H: Yeah, Ilana means that bonobos aren't monkeys because monkeys have tails. So Bonobos are technically apes. The Latin name for Bonobo is Pan Paniscus.

I: Queer queerness


H: Double queer.

E: Love it.

H: Queerer than our single Homo. The bonobo is a large ape, one of the last large mammals discovered by science. And that happened in 1929 [1].

I: Which means there's people alive today who were living and aware when these guys were found. Which is wild.

E: I can't imagine like opening the news...paper, I guess was how that worked back in the day, and ‘Oh, look there's a new primate. Guess we have a new cousin!’

I: The ancient technology of the newspaper!

H: I'm trying to think of a similarly charismatic species. Like we discover a polar bear while you're alive.

I: I’m down.

E: I think I would lose my mind.

H: Though the Bonobo is found only in the lowland rainforest along the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a country in Central almost southern Africa, the species was discovered by science in a Belgian Colonial Museum. [1]

E: Wow.

I: There might be hundreds of undiscovered species in your local Museum, think about that.

H: Yeah, just hiding in the specimen collection.

E: That haven't been labeled.

I: Or mislabeled, if they are fungi they're probably mislabeled.

E: Oooh mislabeled...

H: So fund your local museum, listeners. And herbariums, and fungariums, and botanical gardens.

I: Please!

E: Anything you can think of that does science. Give them money, we would appreciate it! You’re the best. Okay.

H: So this species was discovered in a museum; however, the skull had to get to the museum somehow. So evidently at least one person had seen the species before the guy who got credit, and absolutely the people indigenous to the bonobos’ native habitat knew that it was a species before the guy who got credit. His name was Ernst Schwartz, and he was a German anatomist [1].

---Hello this is Hannah from the future! I'm the one editing these so I'll also be recording a lot of these corrections and clarifications. I just wanted to put a note here saying that while we support the discovery of new knowledge and the expansion of all human knowledge collectively, we do not support colonialism or the history of white Western science using colonial expansion to further itself at the expense of indigenous communities. The quote-unquote discovery of species like the bonobo by the global scientific community would have happened without colonialism if the holders of that knowledge had consented to sharing it with the world and had the resources to do so themselves. To make it clear, we support ethical, equitable, and honest science. Ok, that’s all for now, you may hear more from me later! Back to regular Hannah.---

Schwartz found the skull of what previously had been thought to be a young chimpanzee in this museum. But upon studying the skull, he discovered that it belonged to an adult organism, so he concluded that it must have come from a species separate from the chimpanzee it was previously called. He called the species the pygmy chimpanzee because the skull was smaller, even though the bonobo is the same size as the smallest subspecies of chimp with the males being 95 pounds and the females being 73 pounds [1].

I: Imagine your entire species just being named because one of you guys was small, like assuming all humans are like five feet based on a smaller human or 6 and 1/2 ft based on one gotta all be the same right that’s how that works.

H: And if, on average, their skull is smaller than a chimp’s skull, their bodies are the same size. We were just making a lot of incorrect assumptions from one bone [skulls are actually made of multiple bones]. He had to go back and correct that.

I: But hey, he did realize it was a different species…

H: That’s true.

E: I guess that's something. Right?

H: And even compared to people this thing is not that small! Males are 95 pounds; there are some adult people who are less than 100 pounds, right?

E: Yeah, I had a friend who weighed less than 100 pounds, granted she was 4 ft 7. Yeah, they are out there.

H: Small humans overlap with the size of large Bonobos. So calling this ape pygmy is not necessarily accurate.

I: They are taller than hobbits.

H: Whoa.

E: They are taller than hobbits! Wow.

I: Yeah, Hobbits are only up to like 3-4 [ft].

E: And they got called pygmy… wow.

H: They are big boys! End of story. They are big boys too (laughter)

E: They are! Look at these adults. I’m with Hannah. If you are bigger than a hobbit you shouldn’t have pygmy anything in your name.

H: Anyway, I sent photographs of the Bonobo to you two if you would like to peruse those and describe them to our listeners.

E: Oooh, this will be interesting.

I: So just like this scientist who had to describe this species based on a skull, we get to describe this species. Granted, we get photos of living Bonobos. Bonus! But you’ll get to see just how clear we can be. You will get to see these images or similar images of Bonobos on our socials, so please be sure to check there. For now let us paint you a word picture.

E: With our very clumsy brush strokes.

I: Elizabeth, should we tag team this?

E: Yeah! Let’s tag team it, that sounds like a good strategy.

I: Okay. Well when I first look at these photos, one huge thing I notice is that they have a very human-like structure of their body.

E: Yeah.

I: They are muscley humans.

E: If I had ever taken an anatomy class I would know what these muscles are called, like, biceps, and triceps and I-don't-know-other-muscles in your arms. But these guys have big arms.

I: And legs.

E: They are muscley, that is what I got for you.

I: They be strong monkeys, or well, chimpanzees [apes].

H: Beefy boys.

E: Ohh yes. Tough boys, well… kinda tough boys. We will get into that.

I: They’ve definitely got dark hair that seems to vary in how thick it is, maybe with age, don’t know.

E: Yeah is this like a balding thing, like humans, an age indicator when their hair is really thin?

I: Bald spot.

H: I noticed that too Elizabeth. They bald on the top of the head right where old human men bald.

E: Well, not necessarily old.

I: No.

H: Very true.

E: But theoretically.

---Hello, future Hannah again. I found the answer to why Bonobos bald and it's much sadder than what we were talking about just now. It's not because they get old. Bonobos in the wild generally have full heads of black hair, but in captivity many are bald. Captive bonobos tend to overgroom key members of the group like the highest ranking females. Balding can also be caused by boredom and stress, and diseases that destroy hair follicles like ringworm and the mites that cause mange [2]. So it’s not age but stress in captivity or disease that are more likely the cause. Anyway, back to the show.---

I: Also, they seem very elongated. Like I am just looking at their hands and they are long hands.

E:Yeah, they kinda got like a gorilla posture. They are walking on their knuckles, front hands.

I: Big fingers.

H: A pianist’s fingers.

I:They have got the pretty classic chimpanzee-esque facial structure where it protrudes in the front, like the nose and the mouth stick out.

E: Yeah, and the brow. It’s a very sticky-outy kind of brow. That’s not a scientific word; don’t quote me.

I: Yes it is! It is now, I'm definitely always quoting this.

E: Okay, stick-outy brow. New term.

I: I would say on the scale of cute to very cute, they are definitely very cute.

H: Absolutely.

E: Yeah, these guys are adorable. I would definitely hug a Bonobo so quick

H: Hypothetically I agree, they do look very huggable. Though we don’t encourage touching wildlife on this podcast, that can be very dangerous for both animals and people.

I: We have one picture where one of them is playing with a banana and another where they are blowing bubbles, or drinking.

E: Okay, but what if that’s a picture of a baby Bonobo learning to blow bubbles? That would make me so happy, it’s so cute! It’s probably not what is going on. But it’s so cute! Don’t ruin my fantasy. This Bonobo is blowing bubbles and it’s so cute; I want to be that happy.

I: Good reflection too. It’s a good photo.

E: Yeah, it’s a very good photo.

I: I think that’s most of my comments. Do you have any extra, Elizabeth?

E: They have really cute ears, did we mention the ears? I like those ears.

I: They do have cute ears.

E: They are very stick-outy.

I: They are very stick-outy!

E: Just like the brows. This is the Bonobo theme, they have stick-outy facial features.

I: Alright, I think that’s our official Bonobo description here.

E: Yes, our official description.. How did we do Hannah?

H: Good job. You hit most of the main points.

E: Okay, that’s not bad right? It’s fine.

I: I'll take it.

H: I feel like you painted a pretty good word picture.

E: Alright.

I: Not a zoologist, it’s fine.

E: Everything is fine.


H: Are any of us zoologists? No. (laughter)

I: I mean Elizabeth is the closest.

E: Yeah… Kind of, but like I just want to look at everything cause…

H: We are just doing our best...

E: Yeah, we are just doing our best, it’s fine.

H: If any of our listeners happen to be zoologists and notice something we say is incorrect please feel free to contact us.

E: Yes we would love to hear more official terms than stick-outy! That would be great, let us know.

H: Yes, anyway. Here is the more official description from ‘Bonobos: Sex in Society” by Frans De Waal in 1995 (that's where most of this information comes from). Bonobos have longer limbs and narrower chests than chimpanzees. They have small heads and narrow shoulders with reddish lips, and a black face. The ears are small and the nostrils are wide and flat like a gorilla's. They have a flatter, more open face than a chimpanzee with a higher forehead and stylish middle-parted fine black hair [1].

I: They are ready for a night out, makeup and hair done all nice.

E: Yeah, all natural baby.

H: Entirely natural. Would you like to hear more about the bonobo?

I: Yes!

E: Absolutely! Is that a real question, come on.

H: I was just making sure. (laughter) Bonobos are herbivorous, meaning they only eat plants [1].

I: Same.

H: And they're mainly diurnal meaning they mostly do their activities during the day [1, 3].

E: I wish I could claim that, that would be nice.

H: Sometimes, we were saying earlier though, some of the best ideas happen at night.

E: Yeah, the creative hour. It’s like 1 or 2 in the morning for me… anyway. I think Ilana’s got a different perspective.

I: I am asleep by then. (laughter) I have really great dreams by that time.

E: Ilana is our truly diurnal group member. Way to represent.

I: Yeah!


H: And I have a sort of diary of what the Bonobos average day looks like.

I: Wow, they keep diaries. They are better than me.

E: Yeah I have never managed that. I write a major event for like 2 weeks and then I don't write for like 3 years.

H: I mean, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance does it for them.

E: Oh cool. Well there you go, see, being a Bonobo is already pretty great. They have personal biographers.

I: They’re just that fancy.

H: Yeah, so the Bonobos are the star of the diary, but it’s not necessarily a personal diary. It’s biographical, not autobiographical. So, the Bonobo is largely diurnal, as I said, and in one day a bonobo will spend about 43% of the day resting, 18% feeding in trees, 20% doing terrestrial activities like traveling and feeding, and then another 13% traveling. And I assume that traveling may be in trees because it's separate from the terrestrial traveling category [3].

E: That makes sense.

H: And on average they travel between 1.5 and 15 kilometers a day to forage [3].

E: That's a big range.

I: Sounds like the ideal day. I need to break down my own day into percentages, see how I'm doing.

E: I feel like, as grad students, we're not doing so good on the, uh, rest portion of activities.

I: No, does sitting at my laptop count as terrestrial activities?

H: I believe so.

E: I don't know.

I: I need to know.

E: What does being on my phone count as? H: I think that's terrestrial activities, yeah.

E: That's a large chunk of my day unfortunately.

H: But 43% resting, and resting is separate from feeding and traveling…

E: That's a good life.

H: Like, you're not even eating. They're not even, like, chilling on the couch eating. They're just chilling. They're just vibing.

I: Maybe they're watching some TV.

E: That sounds so nice.

H: I want it.

I: All right, tell us more about their life.

H: So at the end of the day they'll construct nests in the trees that they'll use to forage in the next morning [3]. So, they'll just kind of roll over and grab some breakfast, it's a high priority for them.

I: I also prioritize breakfast in the mornings, it's just not next to my bed.

H: Sometimes i'll leave like a lil’... lil’ something over there, a little granola bar or something.

I: My dog would have it for a midnight snack if I did.

E: Yeah I don't think my dog Holly would leave any food left in the bedroom with my eyes closed.

H: Bonobos have a nest construction similar to that of the common chimp they usually build, as I said in fruit-bearing trees. They prefer saplings that are less than eight inches in diameter and their average nest height is 7 to 15 meters or 23 to 49 feet [3].

E: Wow, that's ambitious.

H: Yeah.

E: Dang.

H: So yeah, it says sapling but they're still pretty tall like 50 feet.

E: Yeah! Geez. I don't want to climb up that to go to bed. I can barely make myself come up my apartment stairs when I'm tired. (laughter)

H: Right and what? That's like five stories? Like, what, I don't know, ceilings- they're maybe like 10 feet tall?

E: Yeah, that's too tall. I'd definitely be going for those 23 feet.

I: So, like second or third story.

E: Yeah.

H: I don't understand how do they stay in the tree? Oh I guess, I guess in their nest.

E: I don't know, it'd have to be a real big nest for me not to fall out of it.

H: [I’m] just quick looking up a bonobo nest picture.

I: You gotta be tall. If you're like small chimpanzee, I'll show you! I'm gonna be tall.

E: Yeah I would not survive as a bonobo, sadly, if I had to sleep in a tree.

H: Oh! Their nests look pretty big.

I: Talent.

E: Okay, but does it come with guardrails, is the question. Cause that's what I need.

I: Okay, humans are a bad example, we fall out of beds and they're like inches off the ground.

H: Like so, in a fork and branches they'll make a little platform kind of out of leaves and other branches and stuff.

I: I'm sure they're probably nice and comfy.

E: Oh no, I would definitely die but I'm glad they can manage that, that's good.

H: There's like kind of a divot in the middle so like maybe…

E: No.

H: Yeah.

E: No… I don't think I'd make it.

I: It's like a leaf bowl.

H: Yeah leaf bowl. Thank you, a much better description than what I came up with Ilana.

E: Okay, leaf bowl sounds good. That's nice, a very pleasant place to fall to your death from.

H: Live a little! Their babies do that.

E: I want to! That's the problem. That's why I can't sleep in one of those. (laughter)

H: No, I would also be terrified. Yeah, and adult bonobos sometimes share a nest, which is a unique behavior among African apes.

E: *sound effect*

H: In the average day the bonobo will rise in the early morning between five and six o'clock, and then of course they'll feed immediately, because like I said that's very important. After a rest period, the troop leisurely travels on the ground to the next food trees feeding on terrestrial plants as they go. There's a gradual decline in activity around midday. Afternoon is spent eating more and traveling more, and then at night arboreal nests are constructed at or near the last feeding site and then they'll settle in for the night around 6:30 or 7:30. And that last feeding site is their first feeding site the next day [3].

I: Sounds like the perfect day.

E: Yeah that sounds really nice. Early bedtime, but you know-

I: Nothing to keep them up.

E: Yeah, I mean-

I: You’ve got your food, you've got your rest. What more do you want?

E: Yeah that's pretty solid.

H: And we could have this! Why do we torture ourselves?

E: But the internet, Hannah… The internet is such an interesting place at three in the morning.

H: So yeah that's that on the bonobos’ day-to-day. Bonobos live in fission-fusion societies, like chimps and like humans, meaning they travel alone or in small parties of a few individuals at a time within the context of a larger community [1]. Like I said, we do that. We live in a society, but in our day-to-day we talk to our work friends, our-

E: Chill at the house friends. The best friends, the one you invite over and never talk to cause you're just sitting next to each other experiencing different things.

I: Craft friends, or when you're in grade school your math friends versus your history friends versus your English class friends.

E: Yeah, classmates.

H: Yeah, definitely. Your, like, going out and partying friends, your board game friends. We have different social groups. And the name fission-fusion comes from the fact that these small groups that are interacting on the day-to-day are very transient, so they're ever changing. One small group of bonobos will encounter another small group of bonobos and then maybe one individual from group A will leave with group B and travel with them from then on. So the groups are never constant [1].

E: Cool. Who changes groups?

H: The males tend to stay with their natal group, meaning the group they were born in. Whereas females tend to migrate during adolescence. So the females are the ones that change groups, and they do this before they have children. Males remain attached to their mothers for their entire lives, following them and being dependent on them for protection and aggressive encounters with other males [1].

E: Wait. So when they get into a fight, they call their moms in for backup? I love that, but like, also, those poor moms. (laughter)

H: Right? Not only do they never leave the group they were born in, but they also just never leave their moms.

E: Mama's boys!

H: Like you said, poor mom. But I know some human mothers that would square up for their baby boys.

E: Yeah I mean there's always those. Yup, yup, yup.

H: So not unprecedented.

I: That's a lot of effort though. Just always…

E: Yeah, I think I know a lot of human parents who are very glad to, you know, not say goodbye forever but wave the kid away when they turn 18. For just like occasional spending time after that, not the whole life glued at the hip bit.

H: Yeah that was - that was definitely my parents. I can't blame them. (laughter)

E: Exactly. They had to take care of me for 18 years, I'd want a break too...

H: Yeah, I understand getting tired of it. And in this situation, the highest ranking males in a bonobo society are the sons of important females because the bonds between females are more important and more central to bonobo society than males. So as a result of males never leaving their natal group, senior males have known all junior males since birth and all junior males have grown up together. Whereas females have to transfer to a new group where initially everyone's a stranger and they're often hostile [1].

E: Oooh, yeah. Strong independent women, all right!

H: Right, forging those relationships…

E: Must be tough.

H: It's important. They're doing the work. So now on to why the bonobo is queer.

E: Ooh, the good stuff.

I: Please tell us why are they queer.

H: So on arrival to a new community young female bonobos will signal to a couple senior resident females, using frequent genito-genital rubbing, and in the literature that'll be abbreviated ‘GG rubbing’. And this is where the two females will rub vulvas, and they often do this in the missionary position, so face-to-face.

I: Wait. Why is that the name?

H: Missionary position?

I: I don't know if I want to know... but why?

E: I feel like it's not good. Do you know?

H: It's not good. It's very bad actually.

E: Okay, tell us.

H: So it's called missionary position because European Christians at one point believed that having face-to-face sex was a uniquely human trait [1].

E: Okay...

H: And that's the justification they used for saying that we were superior. We as in humans, as in, well, I guess they thought European Christian humans.

I: Gross.

H: Yeah.

E: What a weird thing to pick out.

I: Why is that our defining trait?

H: Well it's not. Like, they were wrong. Look at this, bonobos do it too!

I: Of course.

E: Yeah.

I: I think there might be newts and salamanders that also - not sure, but there might be.

H: Yeah, and insects. Don't dragonflies do it face to face or something?

I: Dragonflies are a little different.

E: I think they do it back on back, but you know...

H: Back on back?

I: No, they do it head to toe kind of…

H: Oh head to toe. Yeah that's how they do it.

E: Ooh yeah that's different.

H: Yeah, forget about dragonflies, but there are other species that have sex face to face. It's not just us, it's bonobos and it's other species. We'll likely talk about them at some point in the future. So, these European Christians thought that it was their duty to teach the indigenous populations that they attempted to convert to Christianity how to have face-to-face sex, implying, as far as I can tell, that these indigenous peoples were not human themselves [1].

E: Oh no.

I: Extremely gross.


E: Yeah, on a lot of levels. And why do we still call... Okay. Well, you know, society is messed up.

H: So, maybe we should come up with a different word for that.

E: Yes, I vote new word. We should brainstorm this! Listeners, if you have a new idea, send it in.

H: Yes, we would love to hear it because it should not be named after these missionaries who did terrible things.

E: Yeah. Exactly. That's just not right, we need a new name.

H: In bonobos, one in three copulations in the wild is done face to face. So it's not even an uncommon occurrence. It's 33% of the time [1].

I: Such a weird statistic.

E: Yeah that's kind of a lot. How many were watched to determine that?

H: In addition, the frontal position of the vulva and clitoris of female bonobos suggests that their genitalia have adapted to face-to-face copulation or face-to-face GG rubbing, whatever you want to call sex between two female bonobos [1].

E: Interesting, okay. So their bodies have evolved to take that behavior into account. That's really cool.

H: Yeah, to kind of maximize the positive reward they get out of it, I assume. The pleasure.

E: I mean, yeah, that's fair enough.

H: Yeah, so once the female arrives in her new community of bonobos, if the contact is reciprocated by the senior female, close associations are formed, and the female is gradually accepted into the group. So the strongest social bond form between female bonobos which goes against the generally accepted idea put forward by this guy, Richard Rangham, at Harvard University which said that the sex that stays in the natal group forms the strongest mutual bonds [1]. Which, you know, you think would make sense because males have grown up together; they've known each other their whole lives. It makes sense that they would be close friends; they have a long history.

E: Yeah, or hate each other's guts completely. I feel like there's no in between.

H: Yeah and if one of them did something that pissed the other off maybe they're not on such good terms, yeah.

E: Family, ey-oh.

H: So maybe that's why female bonobos have stronger social bonds.

E: Oh, okay. So the ones who change groups actually bond closer. That's really interesting!

H: Yeah that's something interesting about bonobos. The female bond is stronger. It's more important in their society, and then females will form the strongest bonds with the males that they're related to, so their sons [1].

E: Uh-huh.

H: And then I guess the bonds between females and unrelated males are just kind of transactional?

E: Okay, okay, interesting.

H: I'll talk more about that later. And then conflicts between social groups of bonobos has been observed but it seems to be pretty rare. Different communities have been reported to peaceably co-mingle, including engaging in mutual sex and grooming [1].

I: The original ‘make love not war’!

E: I like it. Exactly, these guys have it figured out way better than... um... people.

H: Absolutely. Here I just kind of want to bring up the long history that science has of looking to the chimp as our closest relative, and looking at the chimp’s more violent and war-like behavior and sort of using that to justify human violence. A study has shown that the bonobo might actually be the closest living relative to humans, genetically [4]. If you’d like to read my source on that it can be found in our episode transcript on our website.

E: Oh yes! Love that, that's extremely exciting.

I: Fun!

E: So what I'm hearing is, that instead of a patriarchal violent society of chimpanzees, right because they solve a lot of their issues with physical confrontations, we might be more closely related to this female-led peaceful egalitarian society, that has a lot of really good sex. Is that what I'm hearing?

H: Um yes.

I: Might skip out on the last part.

E: Yeah, that's okay. It's optional Ilana, it's optional.

I: I'm down for a matriarchal society though, let's go.

E: Matriarchal societies are great. And egalitarian’s always good.

H: Right?

I: Yes.

E: It's such a dichotomy.

H: We're willing to identify with the violence but we're not willing to identify with the love and the diversity.

E: Dang, I guess. Yeah, and that's why we're here during the podcast.

H: Yeah, cause maybe we should relate to that. But at the same time while we may be more closely related to the bonobo, maybe we should be careful this time around, learn from our past mistakes and maybe not use an animal that is not a human, it's very distinct from a human. We have our own evolutionary line, and that's what makes us our own species that is completely different from any other species that exists. And maybe not try to find a template for us in nature, like we're our own thing and that's okay!

I: Definitely, I mean we shared a common ancestor and then it became two different species. We're not, you know, fully the same and that's kind of what makes it awesome.

H: Yeah and while we're closely related to them we don't do the same behaviors for the same reasons. We have different societies and cultures in which those behaviors are contextualized. So while we'll call this animal pan because we want our queer listeners to be able to relate to nature, that's why we're doing this podcast, the animal itself can't necessarily identify as pan because that identity doesn't exist in bonobo culture as far as we know. Like that word doesn't have the same meaning and while it's the best word we can use to describe what we see is not necessarily the same behavior.

E: Maybe another label, right? We're calling them pan because I am enjoying the pun of the genus name. Um, but they could be considered lesbian or bi or anything like that if we were going to stick a label on them. Which, as Hannah's explaining so well, is not really fair to the animal because those labels carry a very heavy cultural weight and significance to us that the animal can't be assumed to have. Right, it's not fair to put our feelings and expectations on them. However, in the same vein, you can't call the animal straight because that's got its own connotations and so you can't call any animal straight or gay necessarily because we don't know what they think of it.

H: Yeah, but the glossing over by science of queerness in nature is why we're doing this podcast.

I: It's something science has been afraid to kind of talk about, partially because of our own societal taboos, and partially because there's a lot of feeling of ‘this doesn't fully fit’ but in that same vein we don't have the language to fully describe it as we see in other organisms. And for our own understanding, it can be valuable to use these terms and I think that's why we are using them here but a lot of our own labels are based off of how we view it in society and off of concepts of different emotions that we understand like love and such that we can't always relate directly to other species because we don't know how they feel. We don't know how this is perceived.

H: The bonobo has an entire internal world that we have no access to so we don't know what these queer a** female bonobos are thinking. Like we don't know if they're thinking like ‘yeah I feel bi and I'm confident in that.’ Like cool if they are but while they can't necessarily apply those labels to themselves, we're gonna use those labels on this podcast to help us relate to them.

I: Very much so this is why we're using this language. This is why in some ways science has shied away from it, whether it be a society or lack of more correct language and understanding and as Elizabeth pointed out, we can't use the term straight either necessarily in the same vein. It's the assumption that everything is straight that we start with sometimes and that's not always queer- clear!- in general either. Yes, I messed up my words and said the name of the podcast, it's fine.

E: But that's what makes it perfect! I love it.

I: We can't use these terms; if we say we can't use one, technically none of them fit, but we're stuck with these words because that's what we have.

H: The limitations of human language.

I: I will say though it has led to some very funny attempts at explaining these behaviors in science, especially older literature where this was just not okay. We'll have to share some of those quotes later.

E: Definitely have to do an episode on that because there's some very interesting explanations for same-sex behavior observed by scientists in like old old papers, or even more recent stuff like even into the 90s and the 00s, there was some very interesting explanations.

H: Like old monks getting unreasonably mad at gay beetles!

I: I love the beetle comment!

E: Yeah.

H: Like these things are abominations, like dude they're beetles, chill out!

E: Yeah, oh my gosh, for sure.

I: And I want to also add, in biology, the concept is you pass on your genes. You pass on, you know, you - your ultimate goal as an organism is to have children to pass on your genes. And that also confuses these behaviors, because we're like “well it's not producing a child, therefore it's not of the same significance”. But, as we see with the bonobos, it's a huge significance for their stature within their social groups and for their interactions. So, I'd say they're just as valuable.

H: Exactly, it's often written off because evolution says that success equals reproduction, and therefore if something doesn't lead to success there must not be any motivation to do it.

E: Right.

H: That's what biology says, which is inherently homophobic.

E: Yeah, like it's some kind of aberration. It's extremely homophobic, and yeah, science has historically been a very narrow-minded perspective from a very narrow group of scientists. And so at this podcast- and a lot of other folks today doing good things!- we hope to broaden that narrative. We hope to shed a little more light on some of those things that have been hidden in the closet for so long, and let them come out to join us.

I: Or, or the jungle…

H: So now on to the final bit. I found a study done by Moskovitch et al. in 2019. Well, it was published in 2019 in the journal Hormone in Behavior and this paper was called “The Cooperative Sex: sexual interactions among female bonobos are linked to increases in oxytocin, proximity in coalitions.” This study was done on a wild population of 36 to 40 habituated wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this population consisted of 13 reproductive females, seven adult males, four sub-adults - which are children - and three juvenile females who had immigrated into the group but weren't considered resident females yet. And this study observed 971 sexual events over the course of 1,483 observation hours [6].

I: Wow.

E: 1,483 hours, that's... I need help. How many days is that?

I: So like almost 27, almost 27 events per, uh, bonobo involved if you're assuming 36 because the four are too young.

E: 27. Okay, 27 events per bonobo in…

I: One second, I have a calculator. One four eight three divided by 24.

E: Thank you for being prepared Ilana.

H: Right, and it might be more if you take out the children.

I: Well I took out the four youth because you said 36 to 40. So I went with 36.

H: Ah yeah, yeah.

I: So that's about, uh, a little less than 62 days if you went by full 24 hour period.

E: Okay, okay.

H: Wait how many days?

I: Uh 62.

H: 62!

E: 27 events per individual, and that's just one per individual, not considering that sexual acts take place between more than one person.

H: Sometimes.

E: Usually, I think the ones they're talking about probably. But anyways.

I: Yeah, so I guess double that. I didn't add that part in.

E: No worries, that's all right. So two months, minimum of 27 acts per individual.

H: Minimum.

E: That's you know… That's, that's uh, that's something. That's definitely something.

I: Probably closer to 40 something.

H: But this was also two months of observation over the course of like four months or something.

E: Okay.

I: Yeah well they probably didn't include the the resting periods as in night time when we're sleeping.

H: They had to sleep.

E: And you said it was at a zoo right?

H: No, it was a wild population.

E: Oh, okay. All right. Yeah. Well the scientists probably had to come and go. I wouldn't be very excited about 24-hour watch of Bonobos.

H: Right.

I: No I’d probably fall out of the tree I was trying to watch them from.

E: Yes.

H: It was January to May. January 2013 to May 2014 [6]. Oh, sh*t.

E: Okay.

I: A lot.

E: Yeah, so like a year and a half.

H: Like 17 months, so they, you know, went to sleep and lived their lives in addition to doing the study.

E: Yeah.

H: So, of the sexual events that they observed, 65% involved two unrelated females [6].

E: Okay.

H: And 98% of the time those females were doing the GG rubbing [6]. I'm not sure what they did the other two percent of the time. To be honest they didn't say in the paper.

E: Okay. All right. But 98% is a very high percentage. I feel okay with that.

H: But, I'm just - I'm just curious, like -

E: I'm curious too. That was my first thought as well.

H: And then, um, 65% of the events were between females, and then 34% of the events were between males and females, most of which were copulations, and then two males were involved less than 1% of the time [6].

E: Okay.

I: They're busy.

E: Okay, so that's almost perfectly split between two-thirds female-female and one-third female-male. Wow.

H: Which I think kind of contradicts the statistic from before that said 33% of copulation events are GG rubbing.

E: Oh, but that was for face to face, wasn't it for face to face?

I: Yeah it was face to face [1]. It was the missionary position, that we don't like the name of…

H: Oh, are face-to-face, yeah. But we know GG rubbing is face to face, and that's almost two-thirds of the events here [6].

E: I see what you mean.

H: Yeah, so the authors of the study, who did the experiment, observed all of these sexual events, and in conjunction with observing sexual events and taking this data about the sex involved and all that sort of thing, they also took the urine of the bonobos [6].

I: Fun.

H: I know right!

E: Honestly, not the worst thing scientists do. Like i've collected poop before, and I'm not sure that's the worst job i've had either.

I: I've studied flies from cow poop before.

H: Dung flies.

E: There you go, I think that's topping me.

I: Yeah. I can ID eight different genera of dung fly.

H: That is a marketable talent.

E: Very impressive, yeah.

I: I'm proud of it.

E: Field biologists get up close and personal with byproducts of other species, very often, too often.

H: Right.

I: Well.

H: You said you were studying fecal matter Elizabeth. So was that because it was a cryptic species?

E: Um yes? It was a species that we knew about but we didn't know their diets. So we were looking at how their diet affected their microbiome.

H: Oh that's cool.

E: And when I say we, I mean the PhD student in charge of the project. I was just a minion but, you know, I thought it sounded cool. (laughter)

H: No, no. I loved being interns on cool a** projects like that. I know that, like, animal biologists who study wolves and other things that are, like, super hard to find sometimes, the feces is like some of the only evidence they have. So that's like an actual sampling method for testing whether a species is present or not is just like looking for the poop.

E: Oh that's super interesting.

H: Yeah, right. So, I didn't know if that's what you were doing but -

E: No, not quite.

I: It's a good way to get deer counts.

H: But studying diet is also very cool.

E: Yeah.

H: But, yeah. So, um, these researchers took the urine of the bonobos before sex to establish a baseline of urinary oxytocin [6], which is the love hormone. I've heard it called the love hormone [7, 8].

E: I've heard it called the happy hormone, but like good things either way.

H: Good things, yes.

E: Very good things. I did find out, fun fact, totally related to me being a dog owner, but oxytocin is produced in dogs’ minds at a high level when they see their owner after their owner's been away. So I think that's cute.

H: That is very cute. Yeah. So, people you have strong love bonds with, whether that's friendship, pet owner companionship, or something more [7].

E: Or more intimate.

H: Yeah.

E: Yeah. Either way oxytocin's the good stuff guys.

H: Oxytocin is the good sh*t. These researchers measured baseline oxytocin and then they also collected urine after sexual activity. And they found that female bonobos only had significantly higher levels of oxytocin following GG rubbing. They didn't have significantly higher oxytocin after copulation with males [6].

E: Okay all right! I feel like we could conclude some things from that, or... you know... imply some things.

H: Take from that what you will.

E: Ladies loving ladies! That's all I'm gonna say.

H: Yeah. To put this a little bit more into context, oxytocin is produced by all mammals. It's produced by mothers following birth. It's produced by mothers during breastfeeding. It's produced by lovers while they're cuddling or after sex [7, 8]. It's produced by dogs looking at their owners, like Elizabeth said. So yeah. Really read into female bonobos’ relationships what you will. And the study kind of speculates on why that is, like why females have this sort of more emotional response following sex with other females, and they think it might be because they have face-to-face sex. They're saying that eye contact is really important because in all of the other contexts I mentioned, they involve eye-eye contact [6].

E: Yeah.

H: All the other scenarios I mentioned involved eye contact: a dog looking to its owner, a baby looking up to its mother while breastfeeding. Like face to face is really important in all of those. So, these authors are saying that might be related to this response.

E: Okay, okay. Yeah. That's - that makes me kind of aww a little bit. I think that's really cute.

H: It's so cute, they gaze lovingly into each other's eyes as they GG rub! I hate that they call it that.

I: Love at sight, love at eyesight instead of love at first sight.

E: Oh so cute! You guys, these little lady monkeys are melting my heart. I love it.

H: And I forgot to say, uh, so bonobos have sex most often in feeding contexts. Anything that catches the attention of more than one bonobo will induce this flurry of sex and that's kind of how they work out egalitarian sharing of resources. So, food is what most often catches the attention of more than one bonobo. So food will be introduced, bonobos will have sex for like five to ten minutes- that's how long this flurry of activity lasts- and then females will sit in close proximity and they will parcel out the food evenly. And then I believe they share with the males, but the males don't remain in close proximity, see. So that's where these authors are saying that this emotional connection after the sex motivates these bonded females to stay in close proximity and share their meal [1, 6].

E: Yeah.

H: In a more social context.

E: That's really cute.

H: Right? It is very cute.

I: Picnics.

H: Picnics. Gay picnic! A gay loves a good picnic.

E: If only, if only listeners.

H: And to compare this to chimps, in chimp society males will aggressively fight for their portion of the food, and then females will share his scraps [1].

E: Oh yeah, that's a - that's a pretty big difference. I like, I like bonobos you guys.

I: Not as fun. I prefer the picnics.

H: Me too.

E: Yes. I like picnics more than, you know, dominance fights for-

H: Right.

E: Food.

I: Also scraps.

E: Anyway...

I: Not fun.

E: Bonobos!

H: And that, that wraps up our episode on the bonobo.

E: Yay good job Hannah!

I: So, is Pan paniscus pan? I guess you guys get to decide after this.

Outro music

H: Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Zeitzer, Elizabeth Fuhrman, and Hannah Roden, with music by Migfus_20. Thank you, Migfus, for putting your music in the creative commons. You are very talented. Visual design for the show is done by Ilana Zeitzer. To get updates about the podcast, follow us @Queerlynatural on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We also upload all of our sources and episode transcripts to our website, Above all else, if you liked what you heard today, tell your friends! Thank you so much for listening, and keep an eye out for our next episode coming September 3. Until next time! Stay queer, and remember: queerly, it’s natural.

Works Cited

[1] de Waal, F. (1995). Bonobo Sex and Society. Scientific American. 272(3): 82-88

[2] Learn, J. R. (n.d.). Do Other Animals Besides Humans Go Bald? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from

[3] Jirik, K. (n.d.). LibGuides: Bonobo (Pan paniscus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from

[4] Prüfer, K., Munch, K., Hellmann, I., Akagi, K., Miller, J. R., Walenz, B., Koren, S., Sutton, G., Kodira, C., Winer, R., Knight, J. R., Mullikin, J. C., Meader, S. J., Ponting, C. P., Lunter, G., Higashino, S., Hobolth, A., Dutheil, J., Karakoç, E., … Pääbo, S. (2012). The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes. Nature, 486(7404), 527–531.

[5] Millstein, R. L. (2019). Evolution. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

[6] Moscovice, L., M Surbeck, B. Fruth, G. Hohmann, A. Jaeggi, & T. Deschner. (2019). The cooperative sex: Sexual interactions among female bonobos are linked to increases in oxytocin, proximity and coalitions. Hormones and Behavior. 116 (2019) 104581.

[7] Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship. (2017, February 14). Science in the News.

[8] Stix, G. (n.d.). Fact or Fiction?: Oxytocin Is the “Love Hormone.” Scientific American. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from

About us

Queerly Natural was created by Ilana, Hannah Roden, and Elizabeth Fuhrman. We are biologists fighting queerphobia, promoting underrepresented perspectives, teaching ecology, and helping queer people relate to the diverse organisms we live among on this beautiful planet! Our music is "Lo-Fi Music Guitar (Short Version)" by Migfus20 (, Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

Transcribed by Ilana

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