Mothers stick together: how the death of an infant affects female social relationships in a group of wild bonobos (Pan paniscus)


Sociality is widespread among group-living primates and is beneficial in many ways. Sociality amongst female bonobos (Pan paniscus) has been proposed to have evolved as a female counterstrategy to male infanticide and sexual coercion. In male-philopatric bonobo societies, females mostly form relationships with unrelated females. Among these social relationships, it has been proposed that females with infants (also referred to as mothers) tend to have strong relationships with each other (mother-bonding hypothesis). In this paper, we use the case of an infant death in a group of wild bonobos in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo, to test this hypothesis. By using dyadic sociality indices for grooming, proximity, and aggression, we investigated whether the infant death influenced dyadic relationships the mother had with other group members. Before the infant death, grooming index (GI) and proximity index (PI) scores were the highest between the focal mother and another mother. After the death, the relationship of this mother dyad weakened, as indicated by lower GI and PI scores, whereas the relationship of another mother dyad became stronger. Aggression index scores among the mothers were comparable before and after the death, suggesting that changes in mother affiliative relationships were not a by-product of changes in overall interaction frequencies. Also, PI scores increased between the focal mother and three non-mothers after the death. Collectively, the shift in social dynamics between the focal mother and other group members after the infant death partially supported the mother-bonding hypothesis.