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Bonobos, Not Chimps, Are Humans' Closest Living Ancestor

May 01, 2017 11:31 AM EDT
McHumba The Female Pygmy Chimpanzee
Scientists discovered that bonobos, also known as pygmy chimpanzees, are actually humans' closest living ancestor.
(Photo : San Diego Zoo/Newsmakers via Getty Images)

Meet the bonobos. This rare great ape species is the closest living ancestor of humans, even closer to us than the common chimpanzee.

According to a report from George Washington University, a new study compared the anatomy of humans, common chimpanzees and bonobos for the first time. The team discovered that the closest living ancestor of humans are actually bonobos, previously known as pygmy chimpanzees.

Modern humans and the lineages of the common chimpanzee and the bonobo split up around two million years ago. Eventually, the two great ape species evolved separately, developing different traits and physical characteristics.

The researchers of this recent study analyzed the muscles of seven preserved bonobos from the Antwerp Zoo. They found out that this endangered species changed less than the common chimpanzees, which makes them closer to humans anatomically.

"In addition, our study has shown that there is a mosaic evolution of the three species, in the sense that some features are shared by humans and bonobos, others by humans and common chimpanzees, and still others by the two ape species," explained Rui Diogo, lead author and associate professor of anatomy at Howard University.

"Such a mosaic anatomical evolution may well be related to the somewhat similar molecular mosaic evolution between the three species revealed by previous genetic studies: each of the chimpanzees species share about 3 percent of genetic traits with humans that are not present in the other chimpanzee species," he added.

The researchers are hoping that new information on the differences between humans and the closest living ancestor could help develop a greater understanding on human health.

Studying bonobos might be increasingly challenging though as the creature is an endangered species facing danger. According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wild bonobos are only found in forests of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil unrest and poverty in the country are main reasons for bonobo poaching and deforestation, contributing to the constant decline of its population.

The new research is published in Scientific Reports.

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