In many Old World primate species, female attractivity increases during the tumescent phase of the sexual swelling for a period that lasts considerably longer than oestrus-related attractivity in other mammals. We examined the reliability of the swelling as an indicator of ovulation in captive bonobos, a species with a long and variable phase of maximum tumescence. Using a combined approach of (1) observations of sexual behaviour, (2) visual scoring of the sexual swelling and (3) analysis of faecal progestin to assess the timing of ovulation during 23 ovulatory cycles of eight adult females, we found that in 30% of these cycles the presumed day of ovulation did not fall within the period of maximum tumescence. When ovulation did occur during maximum swelling, it was more closely related to the end rather than the onset of the maximum swelling period. However, the pattern of sexual swelling was not a reliable indicator of ovulation. In addition, sexual behaviour of both sexes increased in frequency with the degree of the swelling but not around the time of ovulation. We conclude that swellings in bonobos provide honest information on the probability of ovulation, but not its exact timing, and that therefore the `obvious ovulation'-hypothesis cannot explain the function of sexual swellings in bonobos.