Behavior

Behavior

Social structure

The mountain gorilla is highly social, and lives in relatively stable, cohesive groups held together by long-term bonds between adult males and females. Relationships among females are relatively weak. These groups are non territorial; the silverback generally defends his group rather than his territory. In the Virunga mountain gorillas, the average length of tenure for a dominant silverback is 4.7 years.

Silverback mountain gorilla with female

The 61% of groups are composed of one adult male and a number of females and 36% contain more than one adult male. The remaining gorillas are either lone males or exclusively male groups, usually made up of one mature male and a few younger males. Group sizes vary from five to thirty, with an average of ten individuals. A typical group contains: one dominant silverback, who is the group’s undisputed leader; another subordinate silverback (usually a younger brother, half-brother, or even an adult son of the dominant silverback); one or two black backs, who act as sentries; three to four sexually mature females, who are ordinarily bonded to the dominant silverback for life; and from three to six juveniles and infants.

Most males, and about 60% of females, leave their natal group. Males leave when they are about 11 years old, and often the separation process is slow: they spend more and more time on the edge of the group until they leave altogether. They may travel alone or with an all-male group for 2–5 years before they can attract females to join them and form a new group. Females typically emigrate when they are about 8 years old, either transferring directly to an established group or beginning a new one with a lone male. Females often transfer to a new group several times before they settle down with a certain silverback male.

The dominant silverback generally determines the movements of the group, leading it to appropriate feeding sites throughout the year. He also mediates conflicts within the group and protects it from external threats. When the group is attacked by humans, leopards, or other gorillas, the silverback will protect them even at the cost of his own life. He is the center of attention during rest sessions, and young animals frequently stay close to him and include him in their games. If a mother dies or leaves the group, the silverback is usually the one who looks after her abandoned offspring, even allowing them to sleep in his nest. Experienced silverbacks are capable of removing poachers’ snares from the hands or feet of their group members.

When the dominant silverback dies or is killed by disease, accident, or poachers, the family group may be severely disrupted. Unless he leaves behind a male descendant capable of taking over his position, the group will either split up or be taken over in its entirety by an unrelated male. When a new silverback takes control of a family group, he may kill all of the infants of the dead silverback. This practice of infanticide is an effective reproductive strategy, in that the newly acquired females are then able to conceive the new male’s offspring. Infanticide has not been observed in stable groups.

Aggression

Although strong and powerful, gorillas are generally gentle and shy. Severe aggression is rare in stable groups, but when two mountain gorilla groups meet, the two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fight to the death, using their canines to cause deep, gaping injuries. The entire sequence has nine steps: (1) progressively quickening hooting, (2) symbolic feeding, (3) rising bipedally, (4) throwing vegetation, (5) chest-beating with cupped hands, (6) one leg kick, (7) sideways running, two-legged to four-legged, (8) slapping and tearing vegetation, and (9) thumping the ground with palms to end display. Silverbacks are about 10 times stronger than the biggest American football players.

Affiliation

Young gorilla 2-3 years old

The midday rest period is an important time for establishing and reinforcing relationships within the group. Mutual grooming reinforces social bonds, and helps keep hair free from dirt and parasites. It is not as common among gorillas as in other primates, although females groom their offspring regularly. Young gorillas play often and are more arboreal than the large adults. Playing helps them learn how to communicate and behave within the group. Activities include wrestling, chasing and somersault, and just playing around. The silverback and his females tolerate and even participate if encouraged.

Vocalization

Twenty-five distinct vocalizations are recognized, many of which are used primarily for group communication within dense vegetation. Sounds classified as grunts and barks are heard most frequently while traveling, and indicate the whereabouts of individual group members. They may also be used during social interactions when discipline is required. Screams and roars signal alarm or warning, and are produced most often by silverbacks. Deep, rumbling belches suggest contentment and are heard frequently during feeding and resting periods. They are the most common form of intra group communication.

Fears

For reasons unknown, mountain gorillas that have been studied appear to be naturally afraid of certain reptiles. Infants, whose natural behavior is to chase anything that moves, will go out of their way to avoid chameleons and caterpillars. Koko, the western lowland gorilla trained in sign language, is afraid of crocodiles and alligators, even though she was born in captivity and has never seen them. They are also afraid of water and will cross streams only if they can do so without getting wet (i.e. crossing over fallen logs). Dian Fossey observed and noted the mountain gorilla’s obvious dislike of rain, as well.

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