Bonobos And Chimpanzees' Common Body Language Hints At Interspecies Communication

Great ape gossip, deciphered. Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock

Humanity, as far as we can tell, is the only species on Earth capable of using language. That doesn’t mean other animals aren’t able of communicating through idiosyncratic means too. From cetaceans to non-human primates, sound and gestures are just some of the ways in which they “speak” – and, as revealed by a new PLOS Biology study, two of our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, share plenty of common, meaningful gestures.

The last common ancestor between these two great apes lived around 2 million years ago and ever since, the two creatures have evolved and diversified. Both belong to the same genus, Pan, but they belong to different species. 

It’s long been known that both use gestures to communicate, and that a decent number of them were fairly similar. In fact, there’s even an audio-visual dictionary on hand to demonstrate this.

The study explains that, unlike most nonhuman animals, “great apes habitually engage in first-order intentional communication.” Using stares, grins, grunts, howls, gesticulation and more, these evolutionary cousins of ours can ask their friends to follow them, request an ally to scratch their back, or encourage an amorous friend to begin copulating with them.

An international team of researchers, comprised of neuroscientists and psychologists at the Universities of St Andrews and York, as well as a primatologist at Kyoto University, wanted to delve deeper into this chimpanzee chat and bonobo banter. Although it was known that 90 percent of the bonobo’s gestural repertoire overlapped with the chimpanzees, it wasn’t clear if the same overlap extended to inherent meanings.

Carefully observing gestures made by separate communities of bonobos and chimpanzees over time, they deduced their meanings by carefully judging how the recipients of the gestures tended to react. This way, the team avoided intuitively (and perhaps erroneously) interpreting the meanings behind the actions.

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