Animal Angles: War in the Animal Kingdom

In 1974, Godi, a Kahama, was eating peacefully inside Kahaman territory. Humphrey and others from the Kasekela community tracked Godi down and beat him so severely that he soon died. Godi's death, sadly, would not have been astonishing among humans. But these were members of two chimpanzee communities in Zaire's Gombe National Park. And this was the first time scientists had documented such aggression in a species other than homo sapiens.

Further reports show Godi's fate was not a fluke. It's pretty clear that chimps—like humans and no other animal species—have developed systematic, intense, male-initiated, territorial aggression. They go to war!

Many animals use aggression to maintain dominance, to mate, to defend against predators, and to train offspring. Territorial intrusion evokes the strongest aggression. When one opponent signals defeat, however, the other usually stops fighting.

Take Arizona's honeypot ants, for instance. Neighboring colonies can fight over territory for days. Hundreds of warrior ants stand up and bend their abdomens toward each other. But they rarely touch!

The October 2001 ODYSSEY, “Passionate About Primates,” describes how chimps are genetically our closest cousins. Does that explain the aggression that killed Godi?

Maybe. Maybe not. Bonobos are so closely related to chimps that they were once called pygmy chimpanzees. Yet bonobos are uncommonly peaceful. When bonobo communities meet, there is little or no violence, and sometimes friendship. Like chimps, individual males dominate individual females. Unlike chimps, bonobo females gang up on any male who gets too aggressive toward a female. Rarely are bonobos violent with each other.

Why do chimps behave one way and bonobos another? What can we learn that might curb human violence? Scientists strongly disagree over their answers. But they do so cordially!


  • homo sapien: The name of the species to which human beings belong.

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  1. In Lesson 3, you looked at an animal classification chart. This chart shows the dichotomous key scientists might use to help classify a tiger. According to this article, how are bonobos and chimps different?
    [anno: Chimps can be aggressive, and bonobos are peaceful.]
  2. Imagine that you wanted to classify bonobos, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans by their emotional characteristics instead of their physical characteristics. Use the animal classification chart in your book as a guide. How many levels would it have? What would the questions be that would differentiate between the different species of monkeys? You might begin by imagining how each species might respond differently in the same situation. (Don't worry if you don't know how these monkeys might actually respond. You can make up a set of emotional characteristics for each species.) Make a chart, and include questions that would help someone make an emotional classification. Remember that the lowest level of your chart should have just one monkey species.
    [anno: Charts will vary but should include a series of questions that helps to distill one monkey species from the other three.]