News Release

New study finds bonobos receive consolation from bystanders when producing “baby-like” signals to express their emotional distress

Embargoed until 00:01 BST Friday, 5 August 2022

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Durham University

-With graphics-

Psychologists from Durham University, UK have found in their study that bonobos produce a variety of signals including “baby-like” signals to strategically display distress when they are attacked by other bonobos.

The researchers carried out this study on two bonobo groups comprising over 40 bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), the world’s only bonobo sanctuary.

The researchers examined how bonobo victims communicate about their distress after a fight, and whether these signals affect the responses of bonobo bystanders. They found that when the bonobos produce certain types of signals of their emotional distress, they have higher chances of being comforted by other bonobos watching. These signals resemble those typically used by baby bonobos such as pouting, whimpering and showing tantrums.

The adult bonobos usually stop signalling their distress when they get supported by others, while immature bonobos still continue afterwards.

The study reveals that adult bonobos are also less likely to be re-attacked by their former opponent when they display these “baby-like” signals following a conflict.

The researchers further discovered that bonobos are sensitive to their audience as such they produce more signals in general if more bonobos in the social audience are nearby, suggesting bonobos adapt their signals depending on who is nearby.

For a long time, it was thought that great apes had no control over their emotional expressions. The study findings suggest that emotion expressions are not mere read-outs of internal states but can be used in flexible and strategic ways to purse social goals, even in emotionally-charged contexts.

The full research has been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions B.

Lead author of the study, Dr Raphaela Heesen of Durham University, said: “Bonobos are highly sensitive to social situations and who is surrounding them. They have rich emotional lives and are able to communicate their emotional states in flexible ways to influence their group members.

“In using specifically “baby-like” signals, bonobos might increase their chances to be consoled by others and alleviate their own stress level following aggressive attacks. Our research shows that emotions and their expression do not only play a role in the regulation of social life in our own species, but also in our closest living primate relatives”

Senior author of the study, Dr Zanna Clay of Durham University, said: “The act of comforting a victim in distress has long been considered a form of empathy that is initiated by the bystander. However, our study reveals that the victim’s own signals may be used strategically to shaping these responses.

“By producing signals that make them seem more like infants, bonobo victims can promote the chances of receiving comfort from others. This highlights the important role that communication plays in shaping empathic responding.”

The researchers thus emphasise that bonobos have flexible ways of communicating their emotions, just like humans.

The study sheds light on understanding the emotional life of bonobos with a focus on the potential evolutionary origins of emotion communication.

This project was conducted by members of the Comparative and Cross-Cultural Development Lab led by Dr Zanna Clay.

It has been funded by the UKRI Economic and Social Research Council Open Research Area Grant, the Living Links Center of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences.


Media Information

Dr Raphaela Heesen and Dr Zanna Clay of Durham University are available for interview and can be contacted on or

Alternatively, please contact Durham University Communications Office for interview requests on

Source information

‘Flexible signalling strategies by victims mediate post-conflict interactions in bonobos’, (2022), R. Heesen, D. Austry, Z. Upton and Z. Clay, Philosophical Transactions B.

An embargoed copy of the paper can be requested from Durham University’s Communications Office. Please email

Full paper can be accessed here after the embargo lifts:  


Associated images and videos are available via the following link:

Image description: Photograph depicting an example of victim with pout face being consoled by a juvenile bystander.

Video description: Post-conflict communication, including “baby-like” (paedomorphic) signals in an immature bonobo victim with consolation by a young bystander.

Credit: Zana Clay/Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

Useful Web Links  

Dr Raphaela Heesen staff profile:

Dr Zanna Clay staff profile:

Diane Austry staff profile:

Department of Psychology:

About Durham University

Durham University is a globally outstanding centre of teaching and research based in historic Durham City in the UK.

We are a collegiate university committed to inspiring our people to do outstanding things at Durham and in the world.

We conduct boundary-breaking research that improves lives globally and we are ranked as a world top 100 university with an international reputation in research and education (QS World University Rankings 2023).

We are a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK universities and we are consistently ranked as a top 10 university in national league tables (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, Guardian University Guide and The Complete University Guide).

For more information about Durham University visit:

END OF MEDIA RELEASE – issued by Durham University Communications Office.

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