Chimpanzee Vs Bonobo: Do You Know The Difference?

Sex-crazed, fiercely violent, and deeply tribal... but that's enough about humans.


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Chimps sitting on a tree in the jungle

Chimps start life with a pale pink face that darkens with freckles as they age.

Image credit: Ari Wid/

Your average ape-admirer will probably have a hard time spotting the difference between a bonobo and a chimpanzee. In fact, until relatively recently, bonobos were simply known to scientists as "pygmy chimpanzees" and their own name wasn't widely used until the 1950s. However, it’s now clear that there are some notable differences between these two species, most significantly in their social behavior and sex lives.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) both share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans, making both of them our closest living relatives. The two species are also extremely closely related, with their genomes being 99.6 percent identical to one another.


These two cousins diverged from each other over 1 million years ago. One well-established hypothesis is that this split occurred because of the Congo River. Analysis of the river sediment suggests that the river’s water level dropped significantly around the time when chimpanzees and bonobos are thought to have diverged.

So the theory goes, one plucky group of ancestral chimps made it across the shallow river and began following separate evolutionary paths to become bonobos. Since non-human great apes hate to swim, they became permanently cut off from each other when the rivers rose.

As such, today we only find bonobos to the south of the river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and chimps to the north of the river in a wider portion of Central Africa and West Africa.

Bonobo vs chimpanzee difference

Bonobos tend to have a more slender body with skinnier limbs, while chimps are stocky and more muscular. Bonobos are also born with dark black faces and pink lips, while chimps start life with a pale pink face that darkens as they age.


One key giveaway is how their hair sits on top of their heads. The hair on top of a bonobo's head is sometimes neatly parted down the middle, making them sometimes look bald, but chimp head hair doesn’t usually have this feature. 

A bonobo ape in the water of a jungle.
Dark face, pink lips, and slender limbs are key features of bonobos.
Image credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/

Bonobo vs chimpanzee intelligence

Chimps and bonobos are both incredibly intelligent animals, capable of tool use, complex social communication, and cooperation in problem-solving.

Interestingly, however, their cognitive abilities are expressed in slightly different ways. A study in 2010 concluded: “bonobos are more skilled at solving problems requiring an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees are more skilled at solving problems relating to physical causality.”

Bonobo vs chimpanzee behavior

The most noticeable difference between chimpanzees and bonobos is their behavior. Communities of bonobos are led by females, which is relatively rare for a species of mammal, but chimps live in a strict male-dominated hierarchy. 


Bonobos are lovers, not fighters. Their temperament is noticeably more relaxed and friendly than that of chimps. They can be prone to violence, but they tend to settle their disputes through sex rather than violence. 

Indeed, bonobo society is all about sex. They will engage in sexual acts throughout the day and appear to use it as a way to build bonds with one another.

All bonobos frequently have homosexual sex too, showing little concern for whether their partner is of the same sex or a different sex. Female bonobos are often seen enjoying mutual genital-rubbing behavior, which seems to play an important role in establishing the female-led hierarchy of the group. Likewise, males have been reported to engage in oral sex with other males and are often observed humping each other. 

Bonobos are the only animal, except for humans, that is known to engage in tongue kissing. They additionally engage in face-to-face sex, which is almost unheard of among primates (except, once again, for humans).  

Bonobo vs chimpanzee fight: Who would win? 

Due to the great Congo River, the natural territories of bonobos and chimps don't overlap, so the two species will never come into contact in the wild. However, if you were to place a wager on which species would win in a fight, chimpanzees would be the safer bet. Along with being more aggressive and prone to violence, they are also marginally larger in size and more muscular. 


  • tag
  • bonobo,

  • chimp,

  • animals,

  • Africa,

  • primate,

  • chimpanzee,

  • great ape,

  • Congo River