Growing up, Martin Surbeck knew he wanted a career that involved working with animals, but didn’t imagine he’d go to the African rainforest to do it.
During college he conducted research on social insects and birds, but at graduation he got an unusual offer: to establish a bonobo research site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and habituate the animals to the presence of researchers. And that set him on the path to his current career.
“These animals are fascinating to watch, and they’re interesting because we don’t know that much about them,” Surbeck said. “So I spent a year in the Congo, habituating bonobos to humans.”
Surbeck, who joined the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology as an assistant professor earlier this year, said his work has helped to fill in the blanks about the animals.
Often seen as less aggressive and more sexually active than chimps, bonobos are sometimes called the “hippie apes” — a name Surbeck says obscures many of the most interesting aspects of their society.
“Unlike in chimps, bonobo males hardly ever cooperate with each other,” he said. “But what we do see is females supporting each other very frequently. And that’s noteworthy because females don’t have their sisters there, so it’s mainly cooperation between unrelated individuals.”
In a study published in November in Hormones and Behavior, Surbeck and colleagues suggest that while same-sex encounters have been observed in bonobo males, they are far more common in females, and could serve as a way to cement those cooperative bonds.