Mountain Gorilla: Behavior and Perspectives

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Introduction

Few animals have attracted the imagination of human beings as the gorilla. This is the largest living primate and member of the ape family. Most gorillas live in various dense forests that are inaccessible in the tropical Africa. Scientists have learned details about the gorillas in the last 30 years. There is a chain of eight volcanoes referred to as the Virunga volcanoes in the western part of the Great Rift Valley. This chain forms the border between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda. Together with the Bwidi Impenetrable National Park located in Uganda, the volcanic mountains are the last habitats for the most endangered gorilla species, the mountain gorilla. They have shorter arms and longer hair than their lowland cousins (Robbins, Sicotte & Stewart, 2001). This research paper seeks to investigate the behavior and perspectives of the mountain gorilla.

Social Structure

Gorillas live in groups. The male adult is referred to as the silverback because of its distinctive silver hair found on the back. It is about 12 years of age with large canine teeth because of its mature age. The group also comprises of the black backs which are mature males that are sexually active with not more than 11 years of age. Goodenough, McGuire & Jakob (2009) indicate that unlike the black backs, silverbacks are the dominant troop leaders because of their strength. Each of them leads a troop of between 5 to 30 members and is normally at the center of attention of the group. Tenne, Hedwig, Call & Tomasello (2008) assert that the silverback makes all decisions; determines the group’s movement; mediates conflicts; leads others to feeding sites; and is responsible for the group’s safety and protection. The black back may however serve as the backup protection.

Males begin leaving their original troops at the age of about 11 years after which they travel alone or together with other similar males for a period of about 2 to 5 years. With time, they attract females and form their own group. Mothers take care of infant gorillas for a maximum of 4 years while orphans are taken care of by the silverbacks (Bearzi & Stanford, 2007). When confronted by an outsider, silverbacks will beat their chest, scream, bare their teeth, break branches, and charge forward. In some instances, a young male could lead the group while the silverback is involved in other activities. However, the group could be severely disrupted when the silverback is killed or dies. It could split up or an unrelated male could take over and end up killing all infants fathered by a different silverback. Although they could climb trees, they are mostly found on the ground.

Food and Foraging

Mountain gorillas are herbivorous by nature. They eat fruits, shoots, wild celery, pulp, tree bark and leaves. They are further classified as folivores. Just like most animals, sometimes they eat small animals. They occasionally eat grubs and safari ants. They spend most of the day time eating. With their long canines and large sagittal crest, they can crush hard plants such as bamboo (Byrne, Corp & Byrne, 2001). Mountain gorillas mostly feed on stems, roots and herbs. The leaves of Rubus asp, Arundinaria alpina, Galium ruwenzoriense, and the stems of Peucedanum linderi are the most preferred food for the mountain gorilla. Adult males can consume 34 kg of vegetation in one day while the female can eat only 18 kg.

Aggression

Mountain gorillas are generally calm with very rare severe aggression. However, when two groups meet, the dominant silverbacks from either group could fight to death. They can use their canines to bite deep (Byrne, 2011). The entire aggression sequence has 9 steps: quick hooting, symbolic feeding, throwing vegetation, rising bipedally, chest beating, sideway running, one way kick, thumping the ground, slapping and tearing vegetation.

Maintenance

Gorillas are diurnal. They spend each night in a new nest made of branches and fresh leaves. They are also nomadic and therefore end up in different locations every night. They are most active at night but they might lie in longer if the weather is cold. During the rest period, the silverback dozes at the center while others surround it as the infants and juvenile play. They use the rest period to bond through play and grooming behavior (Robbins, Sicotte & Stewart, 2001).

Reproduction and Lifespan

The gestation period of gorillas is about eight and half months. The infants are tiny and weigh about 2kg. The first few months of their life are spent in contact with their mothers. The mothers constantly hold their kids that begin to walk after five months and begin eating plants at eight months (Robbins, et al., 2005). They ride on their mothers’ back for the first two years. Typically, there are 3 to 4 years between births. Mothers take care of their infants for 3 to 4 years, the maturity period for the female is 10 to 12 years, and that of the males is 11-13 years. They behave like young children spending most of their time playing and climbing trees as they swing on branches. Gorillas live for 30 to 50 years. However, there have been exceptions of cases like the Dallas Zoo’s, Jenny, which lived for 55 years.

 In the recent past, mountain gorillas have been noticed having face to face sex. This is a trait that has for a long time been considered unique to human beings. Sterck, Watts, & Schik (1997) allege that the females reach sexual maturity after seven and a half years, although they experience 2 years of adolescent sterility. Adult males weigh twice as much as the females. When a female gorilla moves to a new group, the new silverback kills any accompanying infant. This brings the female closer to the male to mate and maintain his blood line. There is no specific mating season for the mountain gorilla and it’s the female who initiate mating behaviors.

Communication and Movement

Like other kinds of gorillas, the mountain gorillas are considered highly intelligent. Some of them have been captured and taught sign language. Since they are very social animals, communication is very important. There are over 20 vocalizations and each one has its own meaning. According to Call & Tomasello (2007), they also communicate by beating on the ground or on the chest. On the ground, they walk using at least two of their limbs. They support most of their weight on the back limbs and walk on the front knuckles.

Use of Tools

According to Lonsdorf, et al. (2009), observations have been made about gorillas using some tools in the wild. For instance, one mountain gorilla in the republic of Congo was seen using a stick to measure the depth of water for it to cross a swamp. Another one was seen using rocks to open coconuts in a game sanctuary while another one was seen fishing with the help of a tree stump as a support and bridge. Gorillas have semi-precision grip and therefore can handle simple tools and weapons.

Migratory Patterns

The mountain gorillas found in the Virunga volcanoes live in an area shared between Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda. The home habitat of gorillas ranges between 5 and 30 km2. This could stretch to more than one country and therefore, their movement might involve crossing the international boundaries. The gorillas respond to food scarcity by travelling further and increasing their range. Male mating competition together with the availability of food can influence the home range and size.

Discussion

The research indicates that the mountain gorillas evolved from eastern gorillas. However, they are under the threat of poachers who trap and kill them not for bush meat but for their body parts. The silverbacks protect their groups from poachers and other animals. Accordingly, their habitat has  been lost due to human settlement. Since human beings need land, timber and food, they encroach into the forest forcing gorillas to migrate to other areas in search of food. Gorillas are also vulnerable to diseases. For instance, in 2004, a population of more than 5000 mountain gorillas died from the Ebola virus in central African (Byrne, 2011).

The gorillas live in families of between 5 to 30 members and are lead by the silverback which controls most of the activities the group engages in. When the younger males mature, they pull out of the group to begin their own and continue their bloodline. Byrne, Corp & Byrne (2001) state that the mothers generally maintain close contact with their infants until the age when they can feed on their own. Unfortunately, if a mother moves with her infant to another group, the new silverback kills the infant and begins a new family with the female. Unlike other primates, the gorillas are generally calm. However, their the silverbacks will protect their groups at all costs. Their fights mostly lead to deaths and therefore they prefer to threaten their enemies with chest thumping, screaming and other aggressive behaviors like uprooting plants rather than engage in actual fight.

Generally, they are very intelligent animals often using tools like stones to crash palms for food (Lonsdorf, et al., 2009). You would not expect animals to be so smart in thinking but gorillas have demonstrated that they are equally bright. In addition, the manner in which they maintain their group-life demonstrates their intelligence. There is a need to carry out more research to understand how the brains of the gorillas function.  However, there has been increased opposition against the use of animal in medical experiment. It is therefore necessary to use other models that would not interfere with the lifestyle of the primates.

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