Young Bonobos Regulate Emotions Similar To Human Children
October 15, 2013

Young Bonobos Regulate Emotions In A Way Similar To Human Children

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Striking similarities between the emotional development of bonobos and that of human children have been discovered by researchers studying young primates in an African sanctuary.

The discovery, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that these great apes regulate their emotions in a human-like way. These findings are important to the study of human evolutionary history because it reveals that the socio-emotional framework commonly applied to children works equally well for apes. Researchers can use this framework to test predictions of great ape behavior, allowing them to confirm humans and apes share many aspects of emotional functioning.

The study was conducted by Zanna Clay, PhD, and Frans de Waal, PhD, of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, at a bonobo sanctuary near Kinasha, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Clay and de Waal used detailed video analysis of daily social life at the sanctuary to measure how bonobos (Pan paniscus) handle their own emotions as well as how they react to the emotions of others. The researchers found a relationship between these two emotional states, in that bonobos that recovered quickly and easily from their own emotional upheavals, such as after losing a fight, showed more empathy for their fellow apes. According to Clay, those bonobos more often gave body comfort -- touching, embracing and kissing -- to those in distress.

As genetically similar to humans as the chimpanzee is, the bonobo is one of our closest primate relatives. Research supports the idea that the bonobo is the most empathic of the great apes. "This makes the species an ideal candidate for psychological comparisons," says de Waal. "Any fundamental similarity between humans and bonobos probably traces back to their last common ancestor, which lived around six million years ago."

How the bonobos handle their own emotions could allow the researchers to predict how they react to those of others. This hints at emotional regulation -- for example, the ability to temper strong emotions and avoid over-arousal. Emotional regulation in children is crucial for healthy social development, with socially competent children keeping the ups and downs of their emotions within bounds. Human orphans typically have trouble managing their emotions because a stable parent-child bond is essential for the development of emotional regulation.

Many of the bonobos in the sanctuary are victims of bushmeat hunting. Juvenile bonobos that were forcibly removed at an early age from their bonobo mothers are cared for by human substitute mothers. After years of such care, the bonobos are transferred to a forested enclosure with bonobos of all ages.

"Compared to peers reared by their own mothers, the orphans have difficulty managing emotional arousal," says Clay, adding that orphaned bonobos took a long time recovering from distress. "They would be very upset, screaming for minutes after a fight compared to mother-reared juveniles, who would snap out of it in seconds."

"Animal emotions have long been scientifically taboo," says de Waal. He stresses, however, how such studies that zoom in on emotions can provide valuable information about humans and our society.

"By measuring the expression of distress and arousal in great apes, and how they cope, we were able to confirm that efficient emotion regulation is an essential part of empathy. Empathy allows great apes and humans to absorb the distress of others without getting overly distressed themselves," continues de Waal. This might explain why the traumatized orphan bonobos are less socially competent than their mother-raised peers.