Why Do Captive Bonobos Pluck Their Hair?

It’s a question anthropologist Linda Marchant has encouraged many students to ask.

The latest such student is Mary Kate Findley, a zoology major who spent her summer studying bonobo behavior at the Cincinnati Zoo recording instances of hair-plucking.

At regular intervals, she jotted the bonobo family’s grooming activities on a chart. When she sees hair-plucking, she notes whether it’s self-directed or done to another bonobo, its duration, and the method.

“We’re trying to figure out what triggers stress for the bonobos and what we can do to change this,” Findley said. “Our goal is to better manage their captive lives and help them to stay healthy and happy.”

Her research is funded by an Undergraduate Summer Scholar award, which paid her a stipend that allowed her to focus on research for the summer. Marchant became her supervising professor.

Another student who studied captive bonobos under Marchant’s supervision was Colin Brand, who graduated in 2014. His research was presented here at Miami, at two professional conferences, and at Cambridge University.

Currently, Colin is a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon.

The question is not trivial—bonobo survival may depend on the answer

In the wild, bonobos are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area that’s now unsafe for researchers because of political instability. The Congo is also unsafe for its population of apes — bonobos, chimps and gorillas. These primates are killed for their meat and are victims of the violence in the region.

In the U.S., a third of this endangered species’ population is housed in Ohio at either the Cincinnati Zoo or the Columbus Zoo