Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Bonobo (Pan paniscus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Bonobo (Pan paniscus)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Groves (1989) recommended that the four great ape genera be combined into one family, Hominidae, with orangutans in a separate subfamily from the other three. Wilson & Reeder (2005) would eliminate the separate subfamilies and group all four together as hominids. Other taxonomists would place the orangutans in their own separate family, Pongoidae.
  • Bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)are distinct species, according to both morphological and genetic data collected in many recent studies (Won & Hey 2005).
    • Bonobos initially described incorrectly as subspecies of the chimpanzee, Pan satyrus (Schwarz 1929); reclassified as separate species, Pan paniscus, four years later (Coolidge 1933)
  • Bonobos and chimpanzees are sister species, and each is equally closely related to humans. Together they are humans' closest relatives. (Maclaurin & Sterelny 2008, Kaessmann et al 1999)
    • Recent DNA sequencing data show that the human genome is 98.7% identical with the bonobo genome (Prüfer et al. 2012) and 98.8% identical with the chimpanzee genome (CSAC 2005).
    • The genetic similarity between bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans is so high that at least one taxonomist has suggested placing them all in the same genus (Homo) (Wildman et al 2003).


  • Common Names:
    • Bonobo (may be a mispronunciation of Bolobo, a town near the Zaire River region of early specimen collection)
    • Pygmy chimpanzee (based on Coolidge's 1933 species description citing Pan paniscus as being somewhat smaller than P. troglodytes and retaining juvenile traits in adulthood; bonobos, however are not smaller than all chimpanzees), dwarf chimpanzee, gracile chimpanzee
  • Local Names: "Eja", "Engombe" (Limongo names); "Mokumbusu" (Lingala name)

Evolutionary History

(Goodman 2003) (Soligo et al 2007)

Divergence and diversification

  • Several genetic studies each examining different aspects of DNA concluded that primate-like mammals diverged from other mammals some 90 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period.
    • Fossils, however, suggest a somewhat younger date for emergence of primate-like mammals at about 65-57 million years ago (Paleocene) in Europe and North America.
  • Two main primate suborders appeared before 50 million years ago:
    • Strepshirhines (lemur-like)
    • Haplorhines (tarsier-like)
    • Both the lemur-like and the tarsier-like primates were represented by several species in the Eocene fossil record of southern California.
  • 40 million years ago New World monkeys diverged from Old World Monkeys.
  • By 28-25 million years ago (Oligocene), earliest anthropoids divided into a lineage from which Old World monkeys and hominids (apes and humans) evolved.
  • The last common ancestor of today's apes and humans lived about 18 million years ago.
  • Divergence between Homo (humans) and Pan (chimps and bonobos) occurred 5-8 million years ago. (Boesch 2002) (Wildman et al 2003)
  • Bonobos and chimpanzees diverged relatively recently, about 690,000-900,000 years ago according to Kaessmann et al (1999) or Won & Hey (2005) or somewhat earlier at 1.8 million years ago based on estimates by Yu et al (2003) or even earlier according to mitochondrial DNA (Gagneux et al 1999)
    • One explanation for the cause of chimpanzee/bonobo genetic separation may have been the formation of the Congo River around 1.5 million years ago which divided the population and today still prevents natural contact between the two species.


  • Hybrids between common chimps and bonobos have occurred in managed care.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Family: Hominidae

Subfamily: Homininae (includes gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans)

Genus: Pan

Species: Pan paniscus - bonobo

Describer (Date): Ernst Schwarz (1929) as Pan satyrus paniscus. Revue Zool. Africaine, 16:425, April 1 1929.
Given species name (Pan paniscus) by Harold Coolidge (1933). Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 18:1-57, Sept. 1933.

Page Citations

Boesch (2002)
CSAC (2005)
Gagneux et al. (1999)
Goodman (2002)
Groves (1989)
Kaessmann et al. (1999)
Prufer et al. (2012)
Soligo et al. (2007)
Wildman et al. (2003)
Wilson & Reeder (2005)
Won & Hey (2005)
Yu et al. (2003)

SDZWA Library Links