Young apes manage emotions like humans, study says

Oct 14, 2013
One juvenile bonobo embraces another after the other lost a fight. Credit: Zanna Clay at Òlola ya Bonoboó in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Researchers studying young bonobos in an African sanctuary have discovered striking similarities between the emotional development of the bonobos and that of children, suggesting these great apes regulate their emotions in a human-like way. This is important to human evolutionary history because it shows the socio-emotional framework commonly applied to children works equally well for apes. Using this framework, researchers can test predictions of great ape behavior and, as in the case of this study, confirm humans and apes share many aspects of emotional functioning.

Zanna Clay, PhD, and Frans de Waal, PhD, of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, conducted the study at a bonobo sanctuary near Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The results are published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Detailed video analysis of daily social life at the sanctuary allowed Clay and de Waal to measure how bonobos handle their own emotions as well as how they react to the emotions of others. They found the two were related in that bonobos that recovered quickly and easily from their own upheavals, such as after losing a fight, showed more empathy for their fellow great apes. Clay notes those bonobos more often gave body comfort (kissing, embracing, touching) to those in distress.

The bonobo (Pan paniscus), one of our closest primate relatives, is as genetically similar to humans as is the chimpanzee. The bonobo is widely considered the most empathic , a conclusion brain research supports. "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," he continues.

If the way bonobos handle their own emotions predicts how they react to those of others, this hints at emotion regulation, such as the ability to temper strong emotions and avoid over-arousal. In children, emotion regulation is crucial for healthy social development. Socially competent children keep the ups and downs of their emotions within bounds. A stable parent-child bond is essential for this, which is why orphans typically have trouble managing their emotions.

The bonobo sanctuary in this study includes many victims of bushmeat hunting. Human substitute mothers care for the juvenile bonobos that were forcefully removed at an early age from their mothers. This care continues for years until 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. She observed how the orphans would take 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, but he stresses 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 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. He says this also explains why orphan bonobos, which have experienced trauma that hampers , are less socially competent than their mother-raised peers.

Explore further: Warning coloration paved the way for louder, more complex calls in certain species of poisonous frogs

More information: Development of socio-emotional competence in bonobos, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1316449110

Related Stories

Bonobos predisposed to show sensitivity to others

Jan 30, 2013

Comforting a friend or relative in distress may be a more hard-wired behavior than previously thought, according to a new study of bonobos, which are great apes known for their empathy and close relation to ...

Scientists complete Bonobo genome

Jun 13, 2012

In a project led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, an international team of scientists has completed the sequencing and analysis of the genome of the last great ape, the ...

Apes get emotional over games of chance

May 29, 2013

Like some humans, chimpanzees and bonobos exhibit emotional responses to outcomes of their decisions by pouting or throwing angry tantrums when a risk-taking strategy fails to pay off, according to research ...

Why yawning is contagious in bonobos

Nov 14, 2012

Being socially close to another bonobo is more likely to make bonobo apes yawn in response to the other's yawns, according to research published November 14 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Elisabetta Palagi ...

Chimp, bonobo study sheds light on the social brain

Apr 05, 2011

It's been a puzzle why our two closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, have widely different social traits, despite belonging to the same genus. Now, a comparative analysis of their brains shows neuroanatomical ...

Recommended for you

Cat dentals fill you with dread?

Oct 24, 2014

A survey published this year found that over 50% of final year veterinary students in the UK do not feel confident either in discussing orodental problems with clients or in performing a detailed examination of the oral cavity ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

betterexists
1 / 5 (11) Oct 14, 2013
What Kind of Bull Research is This?
Who Paid for this Project, Chimpanzees?
VendicarE
5 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2013
"Who Paid for this Project, Chimpanzees?" - Betterexits

Yup. And they earn more than you do too.

DavidW
1 / 5 (9) Oct 14, 2013
"The greatest art and science not only endure for their elegance, but for their Truth."

"I congratulate myself in having an associate in the study of Truth"

Yes, with a capital "T"

-Galileo

DavidW
1 / 5 (10) Oct 14, 2013
Life is Most Important in Life is The Most Important Truth in Life.

Nothing in this universe is more valuable than The Most Important Truth in Life.

Take care in arguing/debating with someone that actually understands exactly how and why you are Most Important in Life. That person is Truthfully your Equal.

We should remember that Life is a Truth before we attempt to shoot down Truth.
DavidW
1 / 5 (8) Oct 15, 2013
Did you down vote The Most Important Truth above and place judgment on yourself?

Most likely, sooner or later, some tragedy will happen in our Life. Typically we will search for an answer and want to understand. To properly understand we must face the Truth. It sure is nice that when that moment comes for us that have had The Most Important Truth (something actually correct and real) reminded to us that there is no escape. We cannot resolve and properly understand without actual acceptance of what we do understand that that is correct.

You think these comments are just someone commenting, huh? I have been at this a very long time. Sure, this approach requires patience, but if it does fail it only fails when a person accidentally dies too soon or they outright choose evil. Tick tock. Pick a side. That strategic little rock placed in head so fast that we don't even know what hit us. In this case, the rock is the medicine we need.