The gorilla is a creature that deserves our admiration. With stocky bodies, broad chests, and muscular arms, gorillas are the epitome of strength in the animal kingdom.
Gorillas are part of the great ape family, including other impressive species like orangutans and bonobos; gorillas are essential to our planet’s biodiversity.
Gorillas are our third closest living relatives. As the largest living primates, gorillas hold a crucial place in the evolutionary history of our species.
We have much to learn from these creatures, from their social behavior to their communication skills.
The term “gorilla” has a history that dates back to ancient times. In the 6th century B.C., Carthaginian Admiral Hanno set out on aThe term “gorilla” has a history that dates back to ancient times. In the 6th century B.C., Carthaginian Admiral Hanno set out on a voyage to the western coast of Africa. After days of sailing, he reported encountering aggressive, hairy creatures that his interpreters called “gorillai.”
U.S. missionary Thomas S. Savage, who was familiar with Hanno’s report, chose the name “gorilla” when describing the first scientifically documented specimen of the primate in 1847.
What Does a Gorilla Look Like?
A striking feature of gorillas is their thick black fur covering most of their bodies. The fur doesn’t cover their faces, palms, or bottoms of their feet. Mountainous gorillas have thicker fur than their lowland counterparts.
Adult western lowland male gorillas can weigh up to 169.5 kilograms (374 pounds). Females have a weight of approximately 71.5 kilograms (158 pounds).
Eastern adult males can weigh up to 220 kilograms (484 pounds), while female mountain gorillas typically weigh around 97.7 kilograms (215 pounds). Adult male Cross Rivers can weigh 180 kilograms (396 pounds).
Western lowland males are usually around 1.7 meters (66.9 inches) in body length. Females are around 1.5 meters (59.1 inches). Eastern adult males can reach around 1.8 meters (72 inches) when standing on their hind legs.
When it comes to size, these great apes are stocky and have powerful builds. One of their most distinctive features is the overall body shape of a gorilla.
Their stomachs are larger than their chests, which is not just for show. It’s actually due to their intestines being enlarged. This assists gorillas in digesting the tough, fibrous vegetation they survive on.
Types of Gorillas
Today’s scientists recognize four different classes of these primates. They are the Cross River gorilla, the Mountain or eastern gorilla (split into two groups), the western lowland, and the eastern lowland. The largest of the four subspecies is the Eastern lowland gorilla.
Keep reading to learn more about the evolution of gorilla populations.
There are two primary species of this primate: the Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei).
Starting with the Western gorillas, not much is known about their behavior and ecology. While there has been some research on captive Western lowland gorillas, field studies have been limited and only began in the 1980s for this subspecies and the mid-1990s for Cross River gorillas.
Western gorillas are more difficult to desensitize to the presence of people, making much of the research indirect, such as DNA analysis and examining food remnants.
The gorilla population has dwindled in a short time span. The Cross River is a critically endangered subspecies of the Western gorilla.
Despite inhabiting rugged terrain, researchers have utilized alternative evidence, such as numbers and locations of nests, to estimate the gorilla population. It is theorized that there are just 200 or 300 of these gorillas left in their natural habitat, making them one of the most endangered primates on the planet.
Mountain (eastern) gorillas are found in the Virunga Mountains and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Mountain gorillas live in forests at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet, where temperatures often drop below freezing.
The population of Western lowland gorillas is unknown because they live in some of the densest and most remote rainforests in central Africa. However, significant populations can still be found in isolated swamps and swampy forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Still, their numbers have drastically dwindled due to poaching and disease.
Similarly, scientists estimate that the eastern lowland gorillas’ population has declined by more than 50% since the mid-1990s, with poaching and habitat destruction being the main culprits.
Gorilla Characteristics and Facts
Gorillas can walk upright but typically move on all fours, using knuckle-walking to gain momentum and pick up speed. This mode of locomotion is shared with chimpanzees, highlighting the evolutionary similarities between these animals.
Females and young gorillas climb more than males, as much vegetation cannot support the weight of the larger males.
Contrary to popular belief, gorillas are not typically ferocious. Studies have shown that they are often unaggressive and even shy, except when unduly disturbed.
If intruders approach their territory, the group’s silverback leader could show aggressive behavior in an attempt to safeguard his dependents. These displays typically include vocalizations, chest-beating, or short sprints toward the intruder, followed by a guarded withdrawal.
Gorillas living in the wild typically have a lifespan of around 35 to 40 years. In their natural habitat, they face various threats, such as predators, diseases, and environmental factors, that can significantly impact their lifespan.
However, with the proper care and protection, gorillas living in captivity can live much longer, sometimes exceeding 50 years. The average lifespan of a mountain gorilla is 53 years in captivity.
Gorilla Natural Habitat
Gorillas usually inhabit Central Africa’s lowland tropical rainforests, while some species are found in the bamboo forest and montane rainforest.
The diverse tropical forest environments that comprise the gorilla habitat have specifically evolved to support them. Typically, these forests maintain a consistent temperature of around 23°C (73.4F) and daylight periods of roughly 12 hours, but their rainfall can vary considerably, which has a big impact on the plant life found there.
In lowland regions of tropical forests, there’s often an extended dry season. Therefore, vegetation in these areas usually consists of prickly shrubs, trees, and succulent plants. This flora is important since it can hold water in cells, enabling the plants to survive in dry conditions.
Despite the lack of research, we do know that these subspecies primarily inhabit lowland forests and visit “bais” or swampy clearings for food.
The Cross River gorilla has a wider range of habitats and consumes a particularly high amount of seasonal fruit. The larger home ranges and travel distances of western gorillas may be related to their diverse diets and smaller group sizes, which may help to avoid competition for food resources.
Bwindi mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas live at somewhat lower altitudes than Virunga mountain gorillas. They have larger ranges and consume vast amounts of fruit. Ongoing research on mountain gorillas in both the Virunga and Bwindi populations sheds new light on these fascinating creatures.
Diet & Foraging
The Western lowland gorilla consumes parts of at least 97 plant species, with 67% of their diet consisting of fruit.
The Mountain gorilla has a more diverse diet, consuming parts of at least 142 plant species, with only 3 types of fruit available due to the high altitude. They must rely heavily on leaves, shoots, and stems, which comprise 86% of their diet.
To collect food, gorillas use their incredible strength to break apart vegetation, with adult males able to shred apart a whole banana tree to get to the tender pith.
They are also very selective foragers that can manipulate the vegetation for the specific portion they want to consume. Interestingly, gorillas do not overexploit an area for food, cropping the vegetation in a way that allows quick replenishment.
Gorillas are known for their elusive nature. They have nomadic living patterns, traveling among different places, as fruit or vegetation abundance essentially serves as a course heading. The average travel range of gorillas is 0.24 to 0.60 miles (400 to 1,000 meters) a day.
These primates rarely sleep in the same place for more than one night. They build sleeping bag-like nests in the trees or, more commonly, on the ground.
Surface nests are typically built from herbaceous plants but vary by season and available materials. Each gorilla builds its own nest; the only case where one is shared is if a mother and her infant sleep in the same nest.
Gorilla Predators & Prey
Gorillas have various defense mechanisms depending on their location, species, and potential predators. While natural predators for gorillas are rare, leopards are a significant threat. These large felines feed on meat from multiple animals, and in their native habitats, they can find unsuspecting gorillas, which serve as their next meal.
While it is not an easy task for a leopard to kill an adult gorilla, leopards can climb trees swiftly and efficiently. And the treetops are among the places where these primates build their nests. Leopards rarely prey on adult males. They focus on young individuals of western lowland gorillas.
Here is an overview of gorilla species’ behavior.
At sexual maturity, both male and female gorillas leave their birth group and join other groups. Males do it to avoid conflict with the dominant male and to prevent inbreeding. However, in some cases, blackbacks (immature males) can remain in their birth group, but they are subordinate to the dominant silverback gorilla.
If unrelated females join a lone male, a new social group can be created. When a leader dies, other males take the opportunity to mate with the available females and potentially become the next leader.
However, in the case of eastern lowland gorilla groups, female gorillas can remain in the same place, waiting for a new dominant male to arrive and protect them.
Wild gorillas enjoy a peaceful daily life, with adult females usually competing to be near the leader for protection. During the morning and afternoon, they forage for food, taking a nap at noon. They continue searching for food and building nests toward the end of the day.
Gorillas, like many other social animals, are dependent on stable family groups for survival and well-being. For Mountain gorilla groups, around 40% of them contain several closely related adult males.
Despite this, many mature males are often “leftover” as groups typically contain more females than males. These loners make up around 5-10% of the gorilla population and roam the forests on their own. However, Mountain gorilla males occasionally form all-male groups for short periods of time.
In the gorilla social life, the group leader plays a critical role in maintaining the cohesion and stability of the group. When the leader dies, the group may dissolve, or a subordinate silverback male, typically the deceased leader’s son, can take over leadership.
A distinctive feature of gorilla society is the strong relationships within the group. These relationships are crucial to raising youngsters, which becomes apparent when a young gorilla loses its mother.
In such cases, the entire group, especially the leading silverback, takes on the duties of the mother to ensure the young gorilla’s survival.
Reproduction & Parenting
A female gorilla reaches reproductive maturity at around 10 years of age and will often transfer to another group or become a lone silverback. Male gorillas, on the other hand, reach sexual maturity at around nine years old but do not reproduce until they become physically mature silverbacks at around 12-15 years old.
The cycle of gorilla reproduction is a slow and deliberate process. Like humans, gorillas give birth to one baby at a time and invest years in raising that infant before giving birth again. This pace makes gorillas vulnerable to population declines.
Female gorillas give birth roughly every four years, and there is no set breeding season. After a gestation period of approximately eight and a half months, a single baby gorilla is born, though twins are a rare occurrence.
At birth, gorillas weigh about 2 kg. They depend entirely on their mother for the first three months of life. During this time, the baby is carried in its mother’s arms, sleeping in her nest at night and riding on her back during the day. Essentially, these female gorillas are a sanctuary for newborns.
For gorilla infants, their survival is based entirely on their mothers. Male gorillas are not actively involved in caring for offspring, but they play a critical part in teaching them how to socialize with other youngsters. As infants grow, they briefly break away from their mothers at five months old.
By 12 months, they can move up to five meters away from their mothers. And by 18-21 months old, the space between mother and child grows even further, and they spend more time away from each other.
Vocalizations are the most commonly used method of primate communication. Gorillas have over 20 distinct sounds that are able to communicate complex information.
Olfactory communication is another important aspect of primate communication. By emitting pheromones, individuals can convey information about their health, reproductive status, and identity. Silverbacks, for example, emit a pungent odor to ward off predators and intruders.
Visual communication is also important, with primates using a range of facial expressions and body language to convey different messages.
Gorillas display aggression through a stern, fixed stare, while fear is often conveyed through an open mouth and nervous eye movements. Playful displays, on the other hand, involve open mouths and relaxed eyes.
Gorillas in Captivity
Zoos have been breeding gorillas in captivity for years. This is for research purposes and to increase the number of endangered species. Yet the question remains whether life in captivity is suitable for these animals.
Many captive gorillas are obese due to their overconsumption of food, and some subspecies have adapted to foods in captivity that are not consistent with their natural diets.
For example, 41 percent of captive gorilla deaths are the result of heart disease. Zoos may provide a safe haven for these animals from predators and a guaranteed food source. It is important to consider whether the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to this method of gorilla conservation.
How Smart Are Gorillas?
Wanna know how smart these animals are? Keep reading!
Gorillas are known to use tools to complete tasks, and they communicate through vocalizations, showing that they are indeed intelligent. However, it’s worth noting that ape species differ greatly in intelligence. For example, gorillas aren’t as curious or adaptable as chimpanzees and tend not to imitate.
While some scientists may not find basic communication and tool use to be the most satisfactory signs of intelligence, others are exploring the consciousness of gorillas.
They are interested in whether gorillas are aware of themselves and can ponder their surroundings and condition. This could be a significant step in understanding these fascinating creatures.
In 2005, after decades of observation, gorillas were seen using tools in the wild. Researchers in the Congo watched one gorilla use the trunk of a small shrub as an impromptu bridge.
Another picked up a nearby branch to assess the depth of a pond. Due to their size and strength, gorillas do not necessarily need tools, unlike chimpanzees. That doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent enough to use them.
Scientific Studies on Gorillas
The discovery of gorillas was a milestone in the history of science. Once thought to be simply legends, brave explorers confirmed the existence of these primates in the mid-1800s. Since then, scientists have been dedicated to studying gorillas.
Thanks to their tireless research efforts, we have learned much about these animals. As nature is always evolving, so must our studies. We now understand that there are actually multiple species of gorillas, thanks to the pioneering work of experts such as George Schaller Beals and Dian Fossey.
When researchers completed a draft sequence of the gorilla genome, their analysis revealed some groundbreaking news. It showed scientists that humans may be even more closely related to gorillas than we ever imagined.
The gorilla is, after chimpanzees, our closest living relative and the last of the great apes to have its genome sequenced. The research team used a single female western lowland gorilla named Kamilah to compare her genome with that of humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, and macaques.
Threats and Conservation Status
The Mountain gorilla faced a dire situation in the 1980s. The population had dwindled to under 400, placing the species on the brink of extinction.
Thanks to extensive conservation efforts, the population has risen to just over a thousand. The Mountain gorilla still faces mortal threats, including habitat loss, disease, poaching, and civil unrest.
Habitat loss, caused by the clearance and degradation of their native forest home, poses the biggest danger.
Preserving these habitats requires developing sustainable alternatives and investing in new economic activities like tourism. This can also boost local communities, and locals will likely see gorillas as a means of improving their own situation, not as competitors.
Poaching for trophies and the live animal trade remains a serious threat. Recent events have shown that poaching, commissioned by unscrupulous dealers to capture Mountain gorilla babies, is still commonplace.
Additional threats these animals face are human diseases, weak law enforcement, local people, the dreaded Ebola virus, and even other gorillas.
Are Gorillas Endangered?
In a word, absolutely, as gorilla numbers are still quite low. The International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes species into different categories, such as endangered and critically endangered.
Endangered species are those whose population has declined by 50 to 70%, have only 2500 or less than 2500 mature individuals remaining, or have experienced a 20% decline in population within five generations.
Critically endangered species are in even greater danger, with a population decline of 80 to 90%, less than 250 mature individuals remaining, or a 50% decline in population within three generations.
What is the WWF Doing?
For 50 years, gorillas have been one of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) flagship species. This international organization actively works to protect all four subspecies of gorillas through its African Great Apes Programme.
They are also improving protected areas, stopping the illegal trade in gorilla products, and increasing support for conservation among both local and international communities. It’s not just about protecting gorillas – these programs also benefit thousands of other species of flora and fauna that exist in their habitats.
How Can You Help?
Believe it or not, your voice does matter. Contact your lawmakers and urge them to continue supporting the Great Ape Conservation Fund, which provides funding for conservation efforts worldwide.
Recycling cell phones and electronics can also make a big impact. Many of these products contain metals that are mined from gorilla habitats. By recycling them, we can reduce the demand for these metals and help protect gorillas and their homes.
Look for sustainable palm oil, wood, and other eco-friendly products to avoid contributing to deforestation and habitat destruction. Educate yourself and others about the importance of conservation and the harms of the exotic pet trade.
You can also directly impact by visiting gorillas and supporting gorilla tourism or by purchasing FSC-certified forest products that support sustainable forestry practices. Donating to the WWF is another way to support great ape conservation efforts.
Relationship with Humans
Gorillas are friendly and peaceful animals. These gentle giants often display human-like behaviors and are known to bond with their caretakers in captivity. Recent studies have shown that gorillas react differently to humans they are familiar with versus those they don’t know.
They respond positively to those they trust and negatively to those they have had negative experiences with. Despite their appearance, gorillas are quite compassionate and have been known to protect humans. There have been instances in the wild where gorillas have saved humans from poacher traps.
Importance in Culture
There is an impressive club of famous gorillas. They have made their mark on culture through books, movies, and even video games.
King Kong, the giant gorilla that falls for an actress, is perhaps the most well-known ape in pop culture. In the literary classic Planet of the Apes, gorillas rule a distant world where they serve roles such as military, police, and hunters.
The heartwarming movie Gorillas in the Mist is the true story of Dian Fosse. This is the famous primatologist who set out to save Mountain gorillas from poachers. Koko was a beloved western lowland gorilla who learned how to “talk” to humans by learning sign language.
For the gamers out there, the word “gorilla” might make you think of the vintage classic Donkey Kong.
How Big Can Gorillas Get?
Adult male gorillas can weigh as much as 440 pounds and stand up to six feet tall on their hind legs.
Which Animal Is the Largest Member of the Ape Family?
The gorilla is the largest member of the ape family.
What Is the Scientific Name of a Gorilla?
Where Are Gorillas Native To?
All of the unique gorilla species are native to the region of equatorial Africa.
Summing Up the Great Gorilla
Gorillas are fascinating and misunderstood animals. They are crucial to the ecosystem and play a significant role in the planet’s biodiversity.
They exhibit unique social structures and behaviors strikingly similar to those of humans. Though facing multiple dangers, such as poaching, disease, and loss of their habitat, conservation efforts are underway to protect these great apes.
Understanding these challenges is essential to ensure the survival of gorillas. We must work together to protect these important animals and their limited habitats.
This will ensure they continue to thrive and contribute to the balance of the ecosystem. With ongoing efforts and increased awareness, humans can make a difference in protecting these gentle giants and securing a bright future for them instead of one that is on the cusp of extinction.