A tender moment or something more sinister?
The image appears to show a bonobo hugging a small mongoose like a prized pet. Instead, maybe the monkey took the baby mongoose for dinner after killing its mother.
But that would be unusual – bonobos eat mostly fruit and only occasionally hunt.
The fascinating behavior was photographed by Christian Ziegler in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His compelling photo was selected as a highly commended image in the Natural History Museum’s 58th Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition.
The shortlist was revealed on Thursday and the overall winners will be announced at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) in October.
Christian had been tracking the group of bonobos “chest-deep through flooded forest” in Salonga National Park for days when he spotted the young male holding a young mongoose.
“I was so amazed to see how he carried the mongoose so carefully. I immediately started following him and documenting it,” he told BBC News.
The monkey held and petted the little mongoose for more than an hour, he said.
But he may have been planning to eat him. When bonobos catch prey, they don’t kill it immediately, but start eating while it’s still alive, according to Dr. Barbara Fruth, director of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project who has been observing these animals for over 20 years.
But occasionally, if the dinner is too large and the monkey is full, it will treat the remaining live prey as a pet. Usually, these animals are eaten later.
Dr. Fruth believes that this is probably what was happening in the image.
He points out that bonobos are known for their gentle, empathetic and peaceful nature.
“We know from captivity that bonobos care about people other than their own species,” he says. In the wild, it is unlikely that a bonobo would care for another species as a pet for any length of time, he adds.
But it does not rule out the idea that monkeys keep other animals as accessories to attract interest from other members of the group and thus increase their status.
In the end, this mongoose got a happy ending – the bonobo finally freed his “pet”, which then escaped unharmed.
The mystery behind the photo is part of its appeal to the Natural History Museum’s competition judges.
Natural History Museum senior researcher Dr Natalie Cooper whittled down almost 40,000 entries into 20 categories with her fellow judges. “We’re looking for technically, really brilliant images – the ones you see once and wake up in the morning and still think about,” he says.
WPY has become one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind. For this year’s event, entries were received from 93 countries.
Category and Grand Prize winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on October 11. The museum will then open its annual exhibition of the best photographs on October 14.
The right look by Richard Robson, New Zealand
In Richard Robson’s picture, he and his camera became the object of fascination for this young southern right whale. The encounter lasted 30 minutes, with the whale circling him, swimming away, then returning for another look.
The whales were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the population of southern right whales, known as ‘tohorā’ to Māori, is now recovering after hunting was banned.
Category – Animal Portraits
Video: Southern right whales: Tracking unexpected migrations in the Southern Ocean
Underwater Wonderland by Tiina Törmänen, Finland
A school of inconspicuous perch met photographer Tiina Törmänen on her spearfishing in the lake in Posio, Lapland.
Excessive cloud-like algae growth, a result of climate change and warming waters, can cause problems for aquatic life when it consumes oxygen and blocks sunlight.
Category – Under Water
The Lost Floods by Jasper Doest, Zambia
Dutch photographer Jasper Doest captured Lubinda Lubinda, station manager for the Zambezi River headwaters, in front of his new house (right), which he didn’t have to build as high as his last one because of the lower water level. Climate change and deforestation have led to the Zambezi floodplain experiencing more droughts.
Discussing the image, Dr Natalie Cooper said: “We can talk about climate change until we’re blue in the face, but until you see the reality of it on the screen in front of you, it’s hard to connect with it.”
Polar Frame by Dmitry Kokh, Russia
More than 20 polar bears have taken over Kolyuchin Island in Russia, which has been abandoned since 1992, in search of food. As climate change shrinks sea ice, polar bears find it harder to hunt, pushing them closer to human settlements to scavenge. A low-noise drone was used to capture the impressive image.
Category – Animal Portraits
Treefrog pool party by Brandon Güell, Costa Rica
Here the photographer waded through chest-deep water to capture a breeding frenzy at dawn. You can almost hear the mating calls of the shuffling males gliding by, as the females lay their eggs on palm fronds – about 200 at a time – which later fall into the water below as tadpoles.
Category – Behavior: Amphibians and Reptiles
The Snow Deer by Joshua Cox, 8, UK
Joshua is now eight years old but was just six when he snapped this majestic stag during a heavy snowfall in London’s Richmond Park. He started using a toy camera when he was just a toddler and progressed to a compact camera shortly before taking this photo. “It almost looked like it was snowing,” Joshua said.
Category – 10 years and under
You can see photos from all categories on the Natural History Museum website.