Animals adopting unrelated animals or animals of another species

Bonobo Marie and her adopted daughter Flora

We know that humans adopt children through adoption services because their parents are unable to look after their own children for whatever reason. It’s a well structured process. But animals do it as well. An unusual story about a female bonobo ape adopting a youngster of two-years-of-age who had lost her mother stands out as an example of altruism in the animal world.

Altruism is doing something for somebody else without any obvious reward. A selfless act. For people the reward is sometimes simply the act of giving. But why do animals do it? In this bonobo ape story the youngster, Flora, was adopted by an 18-year-old female whose name is Marie.

Bonobo Marie and her adopted daughter Flora

Bonobo Marie and her adopted daughter Flora. Photo in the public domain (believed).

When Flora’s mother died she was far too small to fend for herself in the jungle. I’m told that among the wild great apes such an adoption by a female adult of a youngster has not been seen before. They were unrelated and therefore the child was a stranger to the mother.

Marie lives in a separate social group. She was being observed by a team of zoologists in the Wamba region of the Democratic Republic Of The Congo. They had been observing the group since the 1970s.

Bonobos are close relatives of chimpanzees but they are more peaceful. In the area of study there are about 130 individuals divided into four groups or communities. Flora is one of two orphaned infants that were taken in by females from other groups. The other infant is Ruby. She was about three when she was adopted by an unrelated female who is in her 50s and whose name is Chio.

According to Dr Nahoko Tokuyama of Kyoto University nothing quite like this has been seen before in the wild and the behaviour fits the concept of altruism. It’s an act of selflessness which appears to be against the concept of survival of the fittest as expounded by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of the Species.

Why would a female adult bonobo want to look after an orphaned infant? Does it benefit her? Well it might, in my opinion. Perhaps she wants to express her mothering instincts because it makes her feel better. Perhaps she perceives the wider issues which is that if she helps one infant that was destined to die she is contributing, in a small way, to the survival of the species. Or perhaps, like humans they just want to help. Why do people do it? Because they want to something good. And why do they want to do something good? Because it makes them feel better and useful. Perhaps this is how apes decide to be altruistic.

There are many examples of dogs adopting orphaned kittens and cats adopting orphaned squirrels and even puppies. So it happens quite a lot in the world of domestic animals. On the National Geographic website there is an example of sperm whales adopting a deformed bottlenose dolphin. This seems an act of pure altruism in recognising that the dolphin may have difficulty in surviving because of a deformed spine. Perhaps we should give animals credit the thinking in a more intelligent way then we can sometimes imagine.