Definitions

gorilla

gorilla

[guh-ril-uh]
gorilla, an ape, Gorilla gorilla, native to the lowland and mountain forests of western and central equatorial Africa. It is the largest of the apes, the males reaching a height of 5 to 6 ft (150-190 cm) with a 9-ft (144-cm) arm spread. Males weigh about 450 lb (200 kg) in the wild; in zoos they become obese and may reach 600 lb (270 kg) or more. The two species of gorilla are the western, comprising the western lowland (G. gorilla gorilla) and Cross River (G. gorilla diehli) gorillas, and the eastern, comprising the eastern lowland (G. beringei graueri) and mountain G. beringei beringei gorillas. The Cross River gorilla of the Nigeria-Cameroon border region and the mountain gorilla of Rwanda, Congo (Kinshasa), and Uganda each number in the hundreds and are closest to extinction. The western lowland gorilla is the most numerous, with 175,000 or more individuals. Male gorillas have prominent sagittal crests and brow ridges and large canine teeth; these features are less developed in females. Females are smaller than males, weigh about half as much, and do not develop the gray hair on the back characteristic of the sexually mature male. Dominant older males, called silverbacks, usually lead stable harem societies of 2 to 30 females and juvenile males in a daily search for food. The animals normally walk on all fours, resting their upper body on their knuckles. They are vegetarians, living on a variety of vines, leaves, fruit, roots, and bark. Mountain gorillas eat wild celery, bamboo shoots, nettles, thistles, and sometimes certain soils or a rare form of fungus. Adolescents and small females may climb trees in search of food and to build arboreal nests for sleeping. Adults of both sexes build ground nests daily. Quiet and retiring in temperament when compared to the excitable chimpanzee, gorillas have been known to attack humans in defense of their family group. Gorillas normally rely on bluffs, roaring and beating their chests to frighten intruders. Their main enemies are human poachers; in the lowlands, leopards may sometimes eat the young. Females bear one infant about every four years; the child is carried in the mother's arms and then on her back. Females mature in 8 or 9 years, males in 11 or 12; gorillas may live more than 40 years. Gorillas are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Pongidae.

See D. Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist (1983); J. Shreeve, Nature: The Other Earthlings (1987).

Male gorilla (Gorilla gorilla).

Largest of the great apes. A stocky, powerful forest dweller native to equatorial Africa, the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) has black skin and hair, large nostrils, and prominent brow ridges. Adults have long, powerful arms; short, stocky legs; an extremely thick, strong chest; and a protruding abdomen. Adult males have a prominent crest on top of the skull and a “saddle” of gray or silver hairs on the lower part of the back. Males, about twice as heavy as females, may reach a height of about 5.5 ft (1.7 m) and a weight of 300–600 lbs (135–275 kg). Gorillas are mainly terrestrial, walking about on all four limbs. They live in stable family groups of six to 20 animals that are led by one or two silverbacked males. They eat leaves, stalks, and shoots. They are unaggressive and even shy unless provoked. They are calmer and more persistent than chimpanzees; though not as adaptable, gorillas are highly intelligent and capable of problem solving. The gorilla is hunted for its body parts and meat, and its habitat is disappearing. It is an endangered species throughout its range; the mountain subspecies is critically endangered.

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Gorillas, the largest of the living primates, are ground-dwelling herbivores that inhabit the forests of Africa. Gorillas are divided into two species and (still under debate as of 2008) either four or five subspecies. The DNA of gorillas is 98%–99% identical to that of a human, and they are the next closest living relatives to humans after the two chimpanzee species.

Gorillas live in tropical or subtropical forests. Although their range covers a small percentage of Africa, gorillas cover a wide range of elevations. The Mountain Gorilla inhabits the Albertine Rift montane cloud forests of the Virunga Volcanoes, ranging in altitude from 2225 to 4267 m (7300-14000 ft). Lowland Gorillas live in dense forests and lowland swamps and marshes as low as sea level.

Etymology

The American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage first described the Western Gorilla (he called it Troglodytes gorilla) in 1847 from specimens obtained in Liberia. The name was derived from the Greek word Gorillai (a "tribe of hairy women") described by Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian navigator and possible visitor (circa 480 BC) to the area that later became Sierra Leone.

Evolution and classification

The closest relatives of gorillas are chimpanzees and humans, from which gorillas diverged about 7 million years ago. Human genes differ only 1.6% on average from their corresponding gorilla genes in their sequence, but there is further difference in how many copies each gene has.

Until recently there was considered to be a single gorilla species, with three subspecies: the Western Lowland Gorilla, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and the Mountain Gorilla. There is now agreement that there are two species with two subspecies each. More recently it has been claimed that a third subspecies exists in one of the species.

Primatologists continue to explore the relationships between various gorilla populations. The species and subspecies listed here are the ones upon which most scientists agree.

The proposed third subspecies of Gorilla beringei, which has not yet received a trinomen, is the Bwindi population of the Mountain Gorilla, sometimes called the Bwindi Gorilla.

Physical characteristics

Gorillas move around by knuckle-walking. Adult males range in height from 165-175 cm (5 ft 5 in – 5 ft 9 in), and in weight from 140–204.5 kg (310–450 lb). Adult females are often half the size of a silverback, averaging about 140 cm (4 ft 7 in) tall and 100 kg (220 lb). Occasionally, a silverback of over 183 cm (6 ft) and 225 kg (500 lb) has been recorded in the wild. However, obese gorillas in captivity have reached a weight of 270 kg (600 lb). Gorillas have a facial structure which is described as mandibular prognathism, that is, their mandible protrudes farther out than the maxilla.

The Eastern Gorilla is more darkly colored than the Western Gorilla, with the Mountain Gorilla being the darkest of all. The Mountain Gorilla also has the thickest hair. The Western Lowland Gorilla can be brown or grayish with a reddish forehead. In addition, gorillas that live in lowland forests are more slender and agile than the more bulky Mountain Gorilla.

Almost all gorillas share the same blood type (B) and, like humans, have individual finger prints.

Behavior

Group life

A silverback is an adult male gorilla, typically more than 12 years of age and named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back. A silverback gorilla has large canine teeth that come with maturity. Black backs are sexually mature males of up to 11 years of age.

Silverbacks are the strong, dominant troop leaders. Each typically leads a troop (group size ranges from 5 to 30) and is in the center of the troop's attention, making all the decisions, mediating conflicts, determining the movements of the group, leading the others to feeding sites and taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop. Younger males called blackbacks may serve as backup protection.

Males will slowly begin to leave their original troop when they are about 11 years old, traveling alone or with a group of other males for 2–5 years before being able to attract females to form a new group and start breeding. While infant gorillas normally stay with their mother for 3–4 years, silverbacks will care for weaned young orphans, though never to the extent of carrying the little gorillas.

If challenged by a younger or even by an outsider male, a silverback will scream, beat his chest, break branches, bare his teeth, then charge forward. Sometimes a younger male in the group can take over leadership from an old male. If the leader is killed by disease, accident, fighting or poachers, the group will split up, as the animals disperse to look for a new protective male. Very occasionally, a group might be taken over in its entirety by another male. There is a strong risk that the new male may kill the infants of the dead silverback.

Food and foraging

Gorillas are herbivores, eating fruits, leaves, and shoots. Further they are classified as foliovores. Much like other animals that feed on plants and shoots, they sometimes ingest small insects also. Gorilla spend most of the day eating. Their large sagittal crest and long canines allow them to crush hard plants like bamboo. Lowland gorillas feed mainly on fruit while Mountain gorillas feed mostly on herbs, stems and roots.

Reproduction and lifespan

Gestation is 8½ months. There are typically 3 to 4 years between births. Infants stay with their mothers for 3–4 years. Females mature at 10–12 years (earlier in captivity); males at 11–13 years. Lifespan is between 30–50 years, although there have been exceptions. For example the Dallas Zoo's Jenny lived to the age of 55. Recently, gorillas have been observed engaging in face-to-face sex, a trait that was once considered unique to humans and the Bonobo.

Intelligence

Gorillas are closely related to humans and are considered highly intelligent. A few individuals in captivity, such as Koko, have been taught a subset of sign language (see animal language for a discussion).

Tool use

The following observations were made by a team led by Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in September 2005. Gorillas are now known to use tools in the wild. A female gorilla in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo was recorded using a stick as if to gauge the depth of water whilst crossing a swamp. A second female was seen using a tree stump as a bridge and also as a support whilst fishing in the swamp. This means that all of the great apes are now known to use tools.

In September 2005, a two and a half year old gorilla in the Republic of Congo was discovered using rocks to smash open palm nuts inside a game sanctuary. While this was the first such observation for a gorilla, over forty years previously chimpanzees had been seen using tools in the wild, famously 'fishing' for termites. It is a common tale among native peoples that gorillas have used rocks and sticks to thwart predators, even rebuking large mammals. Great apes are endowed with a semi-precision grip, and certainly have been able to use both simple tools and even weapons, by improvising a club from a convenient fallen branch.

Studies

The word "gorilla" comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast. They encountered "a savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called Gorillae" . The word was then later used as the species name, though it is unknown whether what these ancient Carthaginians encountered were truly gorillas, another species of ape or monkeys, or humans.

American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage obtained the first specimens (the skull and other bones) during his time in Liberia in Africa. The first scientific writings about describing gorillas date back to the publication of an article in 1847 in Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, where Troglodytes gorilla is described, now known as the Western Gorilla. Other species of gorilla are described in the next couple of years.

Explorer Paul du Chaillu was the first westerner to see a live gorilla during his travel through western equatorial Africa from 1856 to 1859. He brought dead specimens to England in 1861 .

The first systematic study was not conducted until the 1920s, when Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History traveled to Africa to hunt for an animal to be shot and stuffed. On his first trip he was accompanied by his friends Mary Bradley, a famous mystery writer, and her husband. After their trip, Mary Bradley wrote On the Gorilla Trail. She later became an advocate for the conservation of gorillas and wrote several more books (mainly for children). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Yerkes and his wife Ava helped further the study of gorillas when they sent Harold Bigham to Africa. Yerkes also wrote a book in 1929 about the great apes.

After WWII, George Schaller was one of the first researchers to go into the field and study primates. In 1959, he conducted a systematic study of the Mountain Gorilla in the wild and published his work. Years later, at the behest of Louis Leakey and the National Geographic, Dian Fossey conducted a much longer and more comprehensive study of the Mountain Gorilla. It was not until she published her work that many misconceptions and myths about gorillas were finally disproved, including the myth that gorillas are violent.

Endangerment

Both species of gorilla are endangered, and have been subject to intense poaching for a long time. Threats to gorilla survival include habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. In 2004 a population of several hundred gorillas in the Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo was essentially wiped out by the Ebola virus. A 2006 study published in Science concluded that more than 5,000 gorillas may have died in recent outbreaks of the Ebola virus in central Africa. The researchers indicated that in conjunction with commercial hunting of these apes creates "a recipe for rapid ecological extinction". Conservation efforts include the Great Ape Survival Project, a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and also an international treaty, the Agreement on the Conservation of Gorillas and Their Habitats, concluded under UNEP-administered Convention on Migratory Species. The Gorilla Agreement is the first legally-binding instrument exclusively targeting Gorilla conservation and came into effect on 1 June 2008.

Cultural references

Since they came to the attention of western society in the 1860s, gorillas have been a recurring element of many aspects of popular culture and media. For example, gorillas have featured prominently in monstrous fantasy films such as King Kong, and pulp fiction such as the stories of Tarzan and Conan have featured gorillas as physical opponents to the titular protagonists.

See also

References

External links

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