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who are they?

  • Primates
  • Population
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Naming Gorillas
  • History with Man

Gorillas belong to a group of mammals called primates, which includes humans. In fact, after chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest living relatives. Primates have bodies that are shaped like humans. Like other mammals, primates are warm blooded, evolution diagramgive birth to live babies, and feed their young with milk produced by mammary glands. Some primates have tails like lemurs and more than 200 species of monkeys. Other primates don’t have tails and are called apes. The great apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, and bonobos. Gibbons are lesser apes. (Gibbons are smaller and less intelligent than the great apes. Whereas great apes can recognize themselves in a mirror, gibbons and monkeys can't. Gibbons are one of the most agile of all animals and can swing from one branch to another that is 9 meters (30 feet) away.)

While not all primates actually live in trees, all of them have the ability to climb them. They get around by leaping from tree to tree, walking on two or four limbs, knuckle-walking, and swinging between branches of trees. Which of these forms of locomotion do gorillas use? Although many mammals use smell as their primary sense, primates' ability to smell isn't that well developed, but they compensate that with better vision; they can even see colors. Primates come in all sizes. The mouse lemur is one of the smallest, while the mountain gorilla is the largest.

All gorillas live in forests in Africa, but the mountain gorillas live high in the mountains while the other 3 types live in lower, warmer areas and so are collectively known as lowland gorillas. lowland and mountain gorillas Mountain gorillas are larger than lowland gorillas. Their chests are broader, their hands and feet are wider, and their teeth are longer. Zoos only have lowland gorillas since mountain gorillas can’t breed in captivity. A lot more is known about mountain gorillas than lowland because it is much harder to find and follow animals in flat tropical vegetation than in mountain forests. Also, lowland gorillas have traditionally been hunted for their meat, so they are more afraid of humans, making them harder to approach and study. Both have very close-knit families and put great care into raising their babies.

The population of mountain gorillas living in the wild is now estimated to be about 720. 340 were counted in a 2007 census in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and 380 were found in a 2007great ape population census in the Virunga Mountains. It is impossible to count them exactly because of the thick steep forest. But since they each sleep in their own nest each night (except for the babies), researchers get a fairly accurate idea by counting the number of nests left by each group every morning.

Mountain gorillas have pear shaped bodies thanks to their enormous bellies. They have hair all over their bodies except for their face, chest, the palms and fingers of their hands, and the soles of their feet. They have a very large head with a protruding brow and a crest on top. With their tiny ears and small, dark-brown eyes, their eyesight and hearing are about the same as humans. But their mom and 10 week old infantsense of smell is more sensitive than people. Gorillas have black leathery skin and long, thick black hair that insulates it from their cold living conditions at high elevations.

Because of the way they move, mountain gorillas have longer, stronger arms than legs; just the opposite of humans. They have a short trunk, a massive chest and broad shoulders. In addition to opposable thumbs like humans, gorillas also have opposable big toes. Prehensile feet allow them to grasp things like branches with all four of their limbs. Their broad hands are extremely strong and have 4 thick fingers and human and gorilla skulls a thumb.

Mountain gorillas have a life span of 30 to 40 years. Animals aged 35 years and older frequently suffer from arthritis, especially in their hands and feet. This will slow their movement, requiring more time to forage, feed and travel. However, healthy group members usually slow their pace in deference to these elders.

silverback with canines exposed

As gorillas age, tartar buildup on their teeth often leads to periodontal disease and gingivitis, eventually resulting in decay and tooth loss. The teeth may be so affected that the dental roots are exposed. It is possible that older animals actually starve to death because they are unable to chew their food.

Legend has it that over 2000 years ago, an explorer named Hanno from the North African city of Carthage encountered apes on the coast of West Africa. He described a wild battle where several of his men were wounded and scratched trying to capture live specimens. The local people called the animal "gorillae", which in their language meant “the scratcher”. When European explorers first discovered gorillas in the 19th century, they assumed that these apes were what Hanno had encountered. While it is now believed the apes he met were probably chimpanzees, the name has remained with gorillas throughout the centuries.

Mountain gorillas’ scientific name is Gorilla beringei beringei. There are 4 kinds of gorillas. There are 2 species: the Western Gorilla and the Eastern Gorilla. It is thought that they diverged from each other about 2 million years ago. Each of these species has 2 subspecies. Some scientists think classification of gorillas that there are actually 5 kinds of gorillas, and list the Bwindi gorilla as a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla. However, they have only been separated geographically from the mountain gorillas in the Virungas for 500 years, which isn't much time to evolve different physical characteristics. The differences are barely discernable and there remains much disagreement on the distinction between the two. Because of this, they have not yet been given their own scientific name.

Gorillas were the last of all the apes to be discovered by westerners. For centuries, explorers would return home with intriguing tales of frightening hairy giants. They would tell people that gorillas were half man, half beasts that were wild and viscious, sometimes tearing a man limb from limb and carrying his woman into the forest. These accounts were exagerated and sensationalized, but made for great stories!

Finally, in 1847, American Thomas Savage found some skeletons with skulls of a creature in Gabon that nobody recognized. It turned out to be the lowland gorilla. What followed for many years was a disturbing trend of killing them for museums and for scientists to study their anatomy. Very little was known about their behavior and so they became incorrectly known for being aggressive and violent.

first gorilla shot by von beringeIn 1902, German army officer Oscar von Beringe was the first European to see the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes of Central Africa. He was also the first to shoot them. He killed two. Mountain gorillas were given the name Gorilla beringei beringei in honor of him.

Then in 1921, American hunter Carl Akeley went to the Virungas to shoot gorillas for the Museum of Natural History in New York. Because of his profound connection with the animals he came to kill, he persuaded the Belgian government, which then controlled the Virungas, to create a park to protect the gorillas. This area became Albert National Park in 1926, the first national park on the whole continent of Africa.

More than 30 years later, George Schaller became the first scientist to study mountain gorillas in the wild. George Schaller not only pioneered research on gorillas, but tigers, lions, snow leopards, and pandas as well. gorilla skeletonBut it is his work with the mountain gorillas in 1959-60 that he is most famous for. He spent 20 months following, studying, and habituating them.

After reading Schaller’s research, Dian Fossey became obsessed with learning more and so she began her own intensive study in 1967. Fossey became aware of the fact that there were two main threats to the gorillas- poachers and cattle grazing in the park. The guards she hired destroyed the snares, chased the cattle away, and burned the poachers’ camps to the ground.

Fossey saw two gorillas die when their injuries from snares got infected. She saw another die from an infection of a bullet wound from a poacher. Two more died from hookworms, an intestinal parasite found in humans as well. This led her to suspect that perhaps tourists and park rangers were passing on their Dian Fossey diseases to the gorillas. She knew that with so few gorillas in existence, it was crucial for every single one to be helped as much as possible in order to prevent their extinction as a species. This prompted her to ask the Morris Animal Foundation if they could create a program that had veterinarians to treat gorillas that were harmed by humans.

Unfortunately, Dian Fossey was murdered at her research station at Karisoke in 1985. The murder was never solved, but she had created many enemies who didn’t appreciate her placing more importance on the gorillas than on the local people. She was buried among the 17 gorillas that had been killed by poachers during her research. Soon after her death, the Morris Animal Foundation funded the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (The Gorilla Doctors).

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n. Doctors who treat diseased or injured animals.
v. To make something used to or accustomed to
something else. Mountain gorillas have been
habituated to humans so that they are not afraid of us.
The branch of science concerned with the study of the bodies
of humans, animals, and other organisms, especially through
the dissection and separation of the bodily parts.
A Protestant clergyman, physician, and naturalist,
he was sent to Liberia as a missionary in 1836.
adj. Perceptable; recognizable
v. To separate from or go in a different direction.
Also known as Hanno the Navigator, he was a Carthaginian
explorer around 500 BC. He commanded a fleet of 60 ships
on his now famous voyage to West Africa.
ruins at carthage, tunisia
Located on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Tunisia, it was one of the great trading centers and civilizations in
Antiquity. It was also a great military power. General Hannibal (247-182 BC) is considered one of the greatest military
leaders in history. It later fell to the Romans and became one of the three most important cities of the
Roman Empire. This photo shows the city's ruins as they can be seen today and is courtesy of Patrick Verdier
via Wikimedia Commons
n. Inflammation of the gums.
adj. Relating to the branch of dentistry
concerned with the gums and jaw bones.
n. A hard yellowish deposit on the teeth
that contributes to tooth decay.
n. Humble submission and respect.
n. Painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints.
n. A person's or animal's body
apart from the limbs and head.
human and gorilla skulls
Images are approx. to scale and are of casts taken from actual bones of an adult human male skull (left)
and a silverback mountain gorilla skull. The gorilla was captured in 1930 when he was 5 years old. He was
taken to the San Diego Zoo and died in 1942 at the age of 16. Notice the sagittal crest bone at the top of
the gorilla's cranium, which anchors the huge muscles that control its powerful jaws.
Photos courtesy of Bone Clones
The Gorilla Doctors' team of veterinarians and their support staff is dedicated
to providing medical care in the field in Africa. They are the sole beneficiary of
fundraising efforts by igorilla.org. Please visit their site at www.gorilladoctors.org
Mark L. Morris Sr. founded Morris Animal Foundation in 1948.
Dr. Morris was a veterinarian, humanitarian, and visionary who
pioneered advancements in nutrition and the development of
today's quality dog food. His vision continues to this day, and
MAF is concerned with the complete spectrum of pet and
wildlife health issues. Visit MAF on the web.
Dian Fossey
Dian Fossey (1932-85). American primatologist. In 1988 Sigourney Weaver
starred in the movie "Gorillas in the Mist", a 5 time oscar nominated film about
Ms. Fossey's struggle to save the mountain gorillas.
Photo courtesy of Mary-Lynn via CC BY 2.0
George Schaller
"Probably no animal has fired the imagination of man to the same
extent as has the gorilla. Its manlike appearance and tremendous
strength, its remote habitat and reputed belligerence, have
endowed the beast with a peculiar fascination and stirred popular
and scientific interest. It appears to possess some transcendant
quality which inspires every visitor to its realm to put his experiences
in print." From George Schaller's book The Year of the Gorilla. 1964
Univ. of Chicago Press. Photo courtesy of WCS
silverback eating celery
Carl Akeley, as he looked into the eyes of a silverback he had just shot, thought
“As he lay at the base of the tree, it took all one’s scientific ardor to keep from
feeling like a murderer. He was a magnificent creature with the face of an amiable
giant who would do no harm except perhaps in self-defense or in the defense of
his friends.” Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
robert von beringe
From his journal: "From our camp
we saw a herd of large black apes
who were trying to climb the highest
point of the volcano. We succeeded
in killing two large individuals. With
a great rumbling noise of falling rocks,
they fell into a crater opening towards
the northeast. After five hours of
strenuous work we managed to get
one animal up on a rope."
No copyright info on photo found.
first gorilla shot by von beringe
In 1902, von Beringe shot this gorilla.
No copyright info on photo found.
classification of gorillas
Lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans are classified in the order Primates because they share a
common ancestor not shared by other mammals.
closeup of a female
Subspecies is a category that ranks below species. It is usually a fairly permanent race that is isolated
geographically from other subspecies and so has evolved different characteristics. That may be what is
happening now with the gorillas in Bwindi, as they are now isolated from the Virunga population.
Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
infant with finger in mouth
A species is a group of living organisms that
consists of similar individuals that interbreed under
natural conditions (in the wild). This does not mean
that 2 different species can’t make babies. The
Liger is proof; lions and tigers can be persuaded to
interbreed in zoos. Photo courtesy of
John and Mel Kots via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
gorilla infant
Taxonomy is a branch of science that orders animals and other organisms into groups based on their ancestry.
This is commonly known as the classification of organisms and is how they get their “scientific names”.
Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
silverback with canines exposed
Like people, adult gorillas have 32 teeth, with large molars (flat teeth used for
chewing food) and large canines (sharp teeth used for biting).
Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
n. The length of time for which a person
or animal lives or a thing functions.
thick finger holding a foot
Gorillas have fingerprints and fingernails, just like people. The condition of the skin on the foot is due to the
constant moisture in the cloud forest. Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
closeup of foot
adj. Adapted for grasping, or holding, especially by wrapping around an object. Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
opposable big toe
Notice how far the big toe is from the other toes.
Photo courtesy of Joachim Huber via CC BY-SA 2.0
massive chest
This silverback has huge pectoral muscles. When he beats his powerful chest, the sound is so loud that
it can be heard a mile away. Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
long arms
Mature males can have arms so long that they can reach from the floor to the ceiling of a
house! That's about a 2.5 meter (8 foot) armspan. Photo courtesy of Lukas Vermeer
via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
gorilla skeleton
Gorilla skeletons are similar to humans, but their
bones are heavier to support their bigger size.
This was cast from the 180 real bones of a lowland
silverback. Notice the curled finger position for
knuckle-walking. Photo courtesy of Bone Clones
gorilla with wrinkly skin on chest
The wrinkles mean that this silverback is showing his age.
Photo courtesy of Lukas Vermeer via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
gorilla picks his nose
In order to ascertain an unfamiliar object, they will touch it and then smell their fingers. Or maybe more...
Photo courtesy of John and Mel Kots via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
hairless sole of a foot
Tangled up at naptime. This foot will develop thick callouses as the gorilla ages, protecting it from the
thorny plants and stinging nettles in the forest. Photo courtesy of Joachim Huber via CC BY-SA 2.0
hairless palms
Mountain gorillas are neither left handed nor right handed. Which hand they favor depends on what task they
are trying to accomplish. Simple leaf eating may favor the left hand, while in more complex duties, such as
preparing bamboo shoots or stripping wild celery, they may use the right hand predominantly.
Photo courtesy of John and Mel Kots via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
brown eyes
Mountain gorillas can see in color. Photo courtesy of gorillacd.org
large head
Silverbacks have huge jaw muscles, which are anchored to their sagittal crests and come in handy for
fighting. Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
mom and 10 week old infant
This mother and her 10 week old infant cuddle for warmth on a cold day. Notice the differences in their nose patterns.
Each gorilla has a unique nose print, with different shaped nostrils and creases on the bridge of the nose. So instead
of using fingerprints to identify individuals like we do for humans, gorillas trackers look at their nose prints to tell them
apart. Photo courtesy of Ferran J. Lloret
western lowland silverback
Western lowland gorillas live in the smallest family groups of all gorillas, with an average of four to eight members
in each. Photo courtesy of Richard Cridland
big bellies
Their bellies are distended because their diet of foliage not very wholesome, so they need to
eat huge amounts to obtain the necessary nutrients.
Photo courtesy of Nick Ribaudo via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
great ape population
With 7 billion people on the planet, there is approximately 1 mountain gorilla for every 10 million people.
The average American middle school has more students than all of the mountain gorillas in the world.
Background photo of Visoke volcano courtesy of gorillacd.org
lowland and mountain gorilla babies
Mountain gorilla babies (right), like their parents, have much longer, shaggier hair than western gorilla babies. Both weigh
between 4 and 5 pounds (about 2 kilos) at birth. Photos courtesy of John Porter (lowland), and Wolfgang Moeller (mountain).
The western lowland, eastern lowland,
and the cross river gorillas.
silverback in meadow
Large adult males like this silverback can weigh up to 180 kilos (400 lbs) and are about 170 cm (5 ft 6 in) tall
when standing upright (i.e. during a chest beating display). This is about the size of 2 large men or 7 second
graders! Adult females are much smaller, averaging about 100 kg (220 lb) and 140 cm (4 ft 7 in) tall.
Photo courtesy of James Parker
lowland and mountain gorillas
Western lowland gorillas (left) have short, fine, brownish hair, which suits them well in their warm, humid forest habitat. Mountain
gorillas have longer, thicker, black hair to keep them warm in the cooler cloud forests of the mountains.
Photos courtesy of gorillacd.org (mountain), and Lise Villeneuve (lowland).
Because they look so much alike, many people confuse bonobos with chimps. They're about the
same size, but bonobos are thinner and have smaller heads and ears. Like chimps, they use tools
to gather food, but they can also walk upright whereas chimps walk on all fours. And instead of
using agression to resolve conflicts, bonobos use sexual contact. Photo courtesy Greg Hume
evolution diagram
Humans split off from gorillas about 8 million years ago and from chimps about
5 million years ago. Graphic courtesy of Tim Bergmann.
n. The act of moving from place to place.
Knuckle walking. Using both their arms and legs,
they put their weight on their knuckles as they
move around the forest.
mouse lemur
Mouse lemurs store up to 1/3 of their body weight of 1 to 4 oz (30 to 109 g) in
fat in their tails and hind legs, burning it when food is scarce.
Photo courtesy of Josh Brousel via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The canines of an adult chacma baboon are longer than those of the lion. Vervet
monkeys and baboons will play together when they are young, but as adults
baboons will hunt vervet monkeys. Photo courtesy of Loot Eksteen.
When competing for mates, male ring-tailed lemurs will “stink-fight". First they
rub strong-smelling scents from their wrist glands onto their tails. Then they
wave their tails at each other to try to scare their opponents away.
Photo courtesy of Annick Vanderschelden.
n. A mammal of the order Primates, which includes
characteristics such as well-developed hands and
feet, a short snout, and a large brain.
chimp family
Humans share 98.6% of their DNA with gorillas and 98.8% with chimpanzees.
Photo courtesy of Way Lim