Meddling Bonobo Moms Will Stop at Nothing to Get Grandchildren

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Bonobos live in a strongly matriarchal society. Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

You may not be under any any obvious pressure to have children.

Nobody's telling you that have absolutely must multiply. But sometimes — maybe during a holiday dinner with the parents — you and your significant other get the hint.

Maybe it's a long, wistful look from across the table: What a beautiful couple. Imagine the children you would have.

Maybe a verbal nudge: You're not getting any younger.

And, though it may be unspoken, you hear a certain voice in your head. Mom's voice. And it says, Go forth and populate the world with my grandchildren.

At least she's subtle about it. If you had a bonobo mom, you would never hear the end of it.

A new study from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, suggests bonobo moms will not get off their kids' case until they deliver what she is owed: a brood of bouncing babies that she can poke and pinch and love and brag about to all her friends at the Rotary Club.

Well, maybe she won't go that far. But, as the study authors note, when it comes to matchmaking and demanding that the match yield children, a bonobo mom is a force of nature.

A bonobo mom is no wilting flower

Study lead author Martin Surbeck saw that power firsthand while living among bonobo families in the wild. He noted that bonobo females acted a lot like the males during the competition for females. They meddled to the point of physically blocking some pairs from hooking up: No monkey business on my watch!

Moms scared some suitors away from females. They dragged their own squirming sons to meet women. And they even pulled social rank to let other males know they needed to skedaddle — so her own sonny boy could get busy.

"I just wondered, 'What is it of their business?'" Surbeck told Inverse. "This all made more sense once we found out via genetic analysis that they were mothers of some of the adult males involved."

A juvenile bonobo sitting tall grass.
It can't be easy growing up with a meddling mother. But when it comes to fertility, she knows her stuff. Sergey Uryadnikov

Sure, this all might sound terribly embarrassing for the poor bonobo male, but mom really does know best. Researchers found that the mere presence of a bonobo mom in the group setting had an uncanny effect on fertility — males were were about three times more likely to sire offspring than their mom-less counterparts.

"This is the first time that we can show the impact of the mother's presence on a very important male fitness trait, which is their fertility," Surbec noted in a statement. "We were surprised to see that the mothers have such a strong, direct influence on the number of grandchildren they get."

Hierarchy matters

It wouldn't be the first time the "mom factor" has been seen in the wild. The authors also noted some assertive mothers in chimpanzee society — although those moms weren't nearly as meddlesome. They're hands-off when it comes to their son's dating life. But in fights for dominance, chimp moms are very hands-on — frequently joining the fray.

The researchers suggest the lessened role of mothers in chimp society may because it's largely patriarchal. Females have much more powerful roles in bonobo society — and they don't hesitate to wield it.

"Such maternal behavior is more likely to be effective in bonobos, where the sexes are co-dominant and the highest ranks are consistently occupied by females, than in chimpanzees, where all adult males are dominant over all females," the authors noted.

But bonobo moms aren't perfect. The researchers noted they aren't nearly as helpful in finding their daughters a suitable match. Nor did the moms bother to help them raise their kids.

"In bonobo social systems, the daughters disperse from the native community and the sons stay," Surbeck added in the release. "And for the few daughters that stay in the community, which we don't have many examples of, we don't see them receiving much help from their mothers."