Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Friday 10 August 2012


A bonobo at Twycross Zoo (Dr Karl Shuker)

One of the highlights of my visit yesterday to Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, England - famous worldwide for its very comprehensive collection of primates and its excellent record of success in breeding and conserving endangered species - was viewing its breeding group of bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees Pan paniscus, led as is normal for this species by an alpha female (in the common chimp, conversely, it is an alpa male who acts as group leader).

Our own species' closest living relative (putative living Neanderthals excepted!) together with the much more familiar common chimpanzee P. troglodytes, the bonobo is visibly different from the latter species in several ways - which makes it all the more remarkable that its separate taxonomic status was not even suspected, let alone recognised, until the 1920s, i.e. less than 100 years ago. The history of the bonobo's official scientific discovery and classification as a valid species of great ape in its own right is a major success story for cryptozoology, and makes fascinating reading, which I have documented in all three of my books on new and rediscovered animals - The Lost Ark( 1993), The New Zoo (2002), and The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals(2012), and is now reproduced here on ShukerNature:

The bonobo is visibly different from - and much more human-like than - the common chimpanzee (Dr Karl Shuker)

Until the mid-1920s, science only accepted the existence of one species of chimpanzee, the familiar common species Pan troglodytes, generally divided into three subspecies. In 1928, however, zoologist Dr Ernst Schwarz was examining some specimens at the Congo Museum in Tervueren, Belgium, when he came upon a series of skeletons and skins of a chimpanzee type that appeared very different from any that he had seen before.

Two bonobos at Twycross Zoo (Dr Karl Shuker)

Obtained by a M. Ghesquiere, they revealed that this strange form of chimpanzee was smaller in size than the common species, and was much more slender in build. Its head was smaller too, but its face was longer and narrower, its dense fur was also long and was uniformly black except for a small white patch on the rump, and it lacked the common chimpanzee's familiar white beard. Schwarz discovered that these odd-looking chimps had been collected in an area of tropical rainforest on the south bank of the Congo River - all previously recorded chimpanzees had been obtained from localities north of this river.

Until viewing Twycross's specimens yesterday, I had not realised just how gracile, or relatively long-limbed, the bonobo is in comparison with the common chimpanzee (Dr Karl Shuker)

Evidently, the southern chimps comprised an important find, and their distinctive morphology persuaded Schwarz that they represented a currently undescribed subspecies. Hence in 1929 he formally documented it within the museum's journal, naming this new ape P. t. paniscus - the pygmy chimpanzee. Five years later, it was elevated to the level of a full species - P. paniscus.

Bonobo - the leggiest member of the great apes (Dr Karl Shuker)

Once science became aware of this freshly-found primate, investigations uncovered that the Tervueren examples were not the only specimens of pygmy chimp to have been collected without recognition of their separate taxonomic status. The British Museum's collections had contained one in 1895, for instance, and a living example of what was almost certainly a pygmy chimp had been on show for a time in 1923 at New York's Bronx Zoo. Similarly, John Edwards, a zoological historian and Fellow of London's Zoological Society, has kindly brought to my attention a picture postcard in his private collection depicting a chimp housed in Amsterdam Zoo, again during the early 1920s, which was quite obviously a pygmy chimpanzee.

John Edwards's historically significant postcard, depicting a bonobo maintained at Amsterdam Zoo before the separate taxonomic status of its species had been recognised (John Edwards)

Since the species' 'official' discovery, specimens (correctly identified) have been exhibited at several zoological gardens, particularly in European collections such as Antwerp Zoo and Vincennes Zoo. In 1962, Frankfurt Zoo succeeded in breeding pygmy chimps for the first time in captivity, and has repeated this feat on a number of occasions since then. Studies of captive individuals such as these have revealed that the pygmy chimpanzee is much more docile and even-tempered than its less placid, better-known relative.

Bonobos are able to stand upright on their hind legs and are adept at walking bipedally too (Alan Pringle)

There has been a fair amount of controversy concerning the pygmy chimpanzee's precise taxonomic identity. Whereas some experts are so convinced of its distinct specific status that they have even placed it within its own genus, as Bonobo paniscus (bonobo is its native name), certain others still prefer to treat it merely as a subspecies of the common chimpanzee. Recent biochemical and genetic comparisons between common and pygmy chimps, however, indicate that the latter ape is certainly sufficiently distinct to justify classification as a separate species (though whether separate generic status for it is warranted is still a matter for conjecture).

When viewing a photograph like this one, it is not difficult to comprehend that the bonobo is our own species' equal closest living relative (Dr Karl Shuker)

It seems surprising that a wholly new species of ape could remain undetected by science until as recently as the late 1920s, especially when specimens were actually preserved in scientific museums and exhibited alive in zoos. In fact, there is an even more ironic twist to this tale. Following extensive researches on the subject, Vernon Reynolds revealed in the 1960s that the individual designated by Linnaeus way back in 1758 as his type specimen for the common chimpanzee was actually a pygmy chimpanzee!

The bonobo - now recognised as a wholly discrete, second species of chimpanzee after centuries of taxonomic obscurity (Dr Karl Shuker)

For many more remarkable histories of animal discovery and rediscovery, please check out my latest book, The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals: From Okapis to Onzas - and Beyond (Coachwhip Publications: Landisville, 2012).

1 comment:

  1. Bonobos or "black faced ape" are very different from chimpanzees in how they live. Chimps are much closer to us in using force including killing. Banobos tend to go the dolphin way of sex as part of greetings and even reconciliation of grievances over violence.

    I wonder what would happen if we could arrest their and chimps development like we are. We are neotates. We retain our large eyes, less hair, larger head into maturity. I wonder what it would do for them?