In this holiday season when we tend to be more aware of gift giving, sharing and trying to be extra nice to each other, it’s interesting to note that humans are not alone in these acts.

Bonobos are apes that live in Africa’s Congo Basin. They are known for being very friendly, even going out of their way to help strangers. They are also very vocal, use hand gestures and form a matriarchal society, meaning that females lead the groups.

Bonobos look a lot like chimpanzees. The easiest way to tell them apart is that bonobos have pink lips and black faces. An adult female may stand 3 feet tall and weigh an average of 68 pounds. Males can grow up to 4 feet tall and weigh an average of 85 pounds.

Unfortunately, bonobos are endangered and close to extinction because they are isolated in an area where logging is removing trees and plants they need to survive and humans hunt them to eat.

Scientists at Duke University conducted tests to see if bonobos were truly giving. They did this by allowing one caged bonobo the ability to release food to another caged bonobo. Sometimes the bonobo was one they knew, sometimes not.

The study revealed that the monkeys often helped strange monkeys whether the other monkey asked for help or not. Scientists believe this might be because the animals feel basic empathy, when someone shares or understands the feelings of someone else.

This basic form of empathy is known as emotional contagion, it’s the same urge that makes us, and bonobos, yawn when someone else yawns.

A few people emailed me after last week’s column to let me know that Missoula is populated by Eastern fox squirrels, not the red squirrel. In Missoula, Helena and Great Falls, the Eastern fox squirrel is considered an introduced species. Where the species overlap, the fox squirrels seem to displace the native red squirrels, according to forester Orville Daniels. Thanks to the folks who wrote in and corrected my information.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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