Wildlife (c) Ilan Wittenberg (c) Ilan Wittenberg Maasai People
Silverback Gorillas - Rwanda
The specific group which is photographed in these images is named Susa. It is one of the twenty groups that are monitored in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Some of these groups can move to either Congo or Uganda which share a border with Rwanda. Susa is family of 23 gorillas with three Silverback males: Kurira, Kuramba and Impuzamahanga, four Blackbacks (a sexually mature male gorilla of up to 11 years of age), seven females, five infants (the youngest is only 4 months old) and 4 juveniles. I visited Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda in February 2019. It opened in 1925 as part of what is called Virunga massive which combines Park National Des Virunga in Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. It was declared a national park to protect the mountain gorillas which were discovered in 1902 by a German Robert von Berengei hence the scientific name of the gorillas (gorilla Berengei Berengei). These majestic animals live in a group led by a Silverback male of 12 years and above. Females are sexually mature at the age of 8, while gestation is nine months and they breastfeed the baby for 3.5 years! Since 2003 the number of gorillas has consistently increased from 380 individuals to 480 in 2010, to 604 in 2017.
Gorillas are ground-dwelling, predominantly herbivorous apes that inhabit the forests of central Sub-Saharan Africa. The genus Gorilla is divided into two species: the eastern gorillas and the western gorillas (both critically endangered), and either four or five subspecies. They are the largest living primates. The DNA of gorillas is highly similar to that of humans, from 95 to 99% depending on what is included, and they are the next closest living relatives to humans after the chimpanzees and bonobos.
Gorillas' natural habitats cover tropical or subtropical forests in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although their range covers a small percentage of Sub-Saharan 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 2,200 to 4,300 metres. Lowland gorillas live in dense forests and lowland swamps and marshes as low as sea level, with western lowland gorillas living in Central West African countries and eastern lowland gorillas living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near its border with Rwanda.
Etymology The word "gorilla" comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, (c. 500 BC) a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast to the area that later became Sierra Leone. Members of the expedition encountered "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. The American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage and naturalist Jeffries Wyman first described the western gorilla (they called it Troglodytes gorilla) in 1847 from specimens obtained in Liberia. The name was derived from Ancient Greek Γόριλλαι (gorillai), meaning 'tribe of hairy women', described by Hanno. Evolution and classification The closest relatives of gorillas are the other two Homininae genera, chimpanzees and humans, all of them having diverged from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago. Human gene sequences differ only 1.6% on average from the sequences of corresponding gorilla genes, but there is further difference in how many copieseach gene has. Until recently, gorillas were considered to be a single 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, each with two subspecies. More recently, a third subspecies has been claimed to exist in one of the species. The separate species and subspecies developed from a single type of gorilla during the Ice Age, when their forest habitats shrank and became isolated from each other. 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. Some variations that distinguish the classifications of gorilla include varying density, size, hair colour, length, culture, and facial widths. Population genetics of the lowland gorillas suggest that the western and eastern lowland populations diverged ~261 thousand years ago.
Physical characteristics Gorillas move around by knuckle-walking, although they sometimes walk bipedally for short distances while carrying food or in defensive situations and some Mountain Gorillas use other parts of their hand to aid locomotion (60% only used knuckle walking, but the remainder used knuckle walking plus other parts of their hand—fist walking in ways that do not use the knuckles, using the backs of their hand, and using their palms). Wild male gorillas weigh 136-195 kg while adult females usually weigh about half as much as adult males at 68–113 kg. Adult males are 1.4-1.8 m tall with an arm span that stretches from 2.3-2.6 m. Female gorillas are shorter at 1.25 - 1.5 m with smaller arm spans. The average weight of wild adult male gorillas is 143-169 kg. Adult male gorillas are known as silverbacks due to the characteristic silver hair on their backs reaching to the hips. The tallest gorilla recorded was a 1.95 m silverback with an arm span of 2.7 m, a chest of 1.98 m and a weight of 219 kg. It was shot in Alimbongo, northern Kivu in May 1938. The heaviest gorilla recorded was a 1.83 m silverback shot in Ambam, Cameroon, which weighed 267 kg. Males in captivity are noted to be capable of reaching weights up to 310 kg. Gorilla facial structure is described as mandibular prognathism, that is, the mandible protrudes farther out than the maxilla. Adult males also have a prominent sagittal crest.
The eastern gorilla is more darkly coloured 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 gorillas. The eastern gorilla also has a longer face and broader chest than the western gorilla. Studies have shown gorilla blood is not reactive to anti-A and anti-B monoclonal antibodies, which would, in humans, indicate type O blood. Due to novel sequences, though, it is different enough to not conform with the human ABO blood group system, into which the other great apes fit. Like humans, gorillas have individual fingerprints. Their eye colour is dark brown, framed by a black ring around the iris.
Distribution and habitat Gorillas have a patchy distribution. The range of the two species is separated by the Congo River and its tributaries. The western gorilla lives in west central Africa, while the eastern gorilla lives in east central Africa. Between the species, and even within the species, gorillas live in a variety of habitats and elevations. Gorilla habitat ranges from montane forests to swamps. Eastern gorillas inhabit montane and submontane forests between 650 and 4,000 m above sea level. Mountain gorillas live in the montane forests at the higher ends of the elevation range, while eastern lowland gorillas live in submontane forests at the lower ends of the elevation range. In addition, eastern lowland gorillas live in montane bamboo forests, as well as lowland forests ranging from 600–3,300 m in elevation. Western gorillas live in both lowland swamp forests and montane forests, and elevations ranging from sea level to 1,600 m. Western lowland gorillas live in swamp and lowland forests ranging up to 1,600 m, and Cross River gorillas live in low-lying and submontane forests ranging from 150–1,600 m.
Nesting Gorillas construct nests for daytime and night use. Nests tend to be simple aggregations of branches and leaves about 60 to 150 cm in diameter and are constructed by individuals. Gorillas, unlike chimpanzees or orangutans, tend to sleep in nests on the ground. The young nest with their mothers, but construct nests after three years of age, initially close to those of their mothers. Gorilla nests are distributed arbitrarily and use of tree species for site and construction appears to be opportunistic. Nest-building by great apes is now considered to be not just animal architecture, but as an important instance of tool use.
Food and foraging A gorilla's day is divided between rest periods and travel or feeding periods. Diets differ between and within species. Mountain gorillas mostly eat foliage, such as leaves, stems, pith, and shoots, while fruit makes up a very small part of their diets. Mountain gorilla food is widely distributed and neither individuals nor groups have to compete with one another. Their home ranges average 3–15 Square km, and their movements range around 500 m or less on an average day. Despite eating a few species in each habitat, mountain gorillas have flexible diets and can live in a variety of habitats. Gorillas rarely drink water because they consume succulent vegetation that is comprised of almost half water as well as morning dew, although both mountain and lowland gorillas have been observed drinking.
Social structure Gorillas live in groups called troops. Troops tend to be made of one adult male or silverback, multiple adult females and their offspring. However, multiple-male troops also exist. A silverback is typically named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which comes with maturity. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth that also come with maturity. Both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups. For mountain gorillas, females disperse from their natal troops more than males. Mountain gorillas and western lowland gorillas also commonly transfer to second new groups. Mature males also tend to leave their groups and establish their own troops by attracting emigrating females. However, male mountain gorillas sometimes stay in their natal troops and become subordinate to the silverback. If the silverback dies, these males may be able to become dominant or mate with the females. This behaviour has not been observed in eastern lowland gorillas. In a single male group, when the silverback dies, the females and their offspring disperse and find a new troop. Without a silverback to protect them, the infants will likely fall victim to infanticide. Joining a new group is likely to be a tactic against this. However, while gorilla troops usually disband after the silverback dies, female eastern lowlands gorillas and their offspring have been recorded staying together until a new silverback transfers into the group. This likely serves as protection from leopards. The silverback is 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 subordinate to the silverback, known as blackbacks, may serve as backup protection. Blackbacks are aged between 8 and 12 years and lack the silver back hair. The bond that a silverback has with his females forms the core of gorilla social life. Bonds between them are maintained by grooming and staying close together. Females form strong relationships with males to gain mating opportunities and protection from predators and infanticidal outside males. However, aggressive behaviours between males and females do occur, but rarely lead to serious injury. Relationships between females may vary. Maternally related females in a troop tend to be friendly towards each other and associate closely. Otherwise, females have few friendly encounters and commonly act aggressively towards each other. Females may fight for social access to males and a male may intervene. Male gorillas have weak social bonds, particularly in multiple-male groups with apparent dominance hierarchies and strong competition for mates. Males in all-male groups, though, tend to have friendly interactions and socialise through play, grooming, staying together and occasionally they even engage in homosexual interactions. Severe aggression is rare in stable groups, but when two mountain gorilla groups meet, the two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fight to death, using their canines to cause deep, gaping injuries.
Competition One possible predator of gorillas is the leopard. Gorilla remains have been found in leopard scat, but this may be the result of scavenging. When the group is attacked by humans, leopards, or other gorillas, an individual silverback will protect the group, even at the cost of his own life.
Reproduction and parenting Females will purse their lips and slowly approach a male while making eye contact. This serves to urge the male to mount her. If the male does not respond, then she will try to attract his attention by reaching towards him or slapping the ground. In multiple-male groups, solicitation indicates female preference, but females can be forced to mate with multiple males. Males incite copulation by approaching a female and displaying at her or touching her and giving a "train grunt". Recently, gorillas have been observed engaging in face-to-face sex, a trait once considered unique to humans and bonobos. Females mature at 10–12 years (earlier in captivity), and males at 11–13 years. A female’s first ovulatory cycle occurs when she is six years of age, and is followed by a two-year period of adolescent infertility. The estrous cycle lasts 30–33 days, with outward ovulation signs subtle compared to those of chimpanzees. The gestation period lasts 8.5 months. Female mountain gorillas first give birth at 10 years of age and have four-year interbirth intervals. Males can be fertile before reaching adulthood. Gorillas mate year round. Gorilla infants are vulnerable and dependent, thus mothers, their primary caregivers, are important to their survival. Male gorillas are not active in caring for the young, but they do play a role in socialising them to other youngsters. The silverback has a largely supportive relationship with the infants in his troop and shields them from aggression within the group. Infants remain in contact with their mothers for the first five months and mothers stay near the silverback for protection. Infants suckle at least once per hour and sleep with their mothers in the same nest. Infants begin to break contact with their mothers after five months, but only for a brief period each time. By 12 months old, infants move up to five meters from their mothers. At around 18–21 months, the distance between mother and offspring increases and they regularly spend time away from each other. In addition, nursing decreases to once every two hours. Infants spend only half of their time with their mothers by 30 months. They enter their juvenile period at their third year, and this lasts until their sixth year. At this time, gorillas are weaned and they sleep in a separate nest from their mothers. After their offspring are weaned, females begin to ovulate and soon become pregnant again. The presence of play partners, including the silverback, minimizes conflicts in weaning between mother and offspring.
Communication Twenty-five distinct vocalisations are recognised, 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 intragroup communication. For this reason, conflicts are most often resolved by displays and other threat behaviours that are intended to intimidate without becoming physical. The ritualized charge display is unique to gorillas. 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.
Lifespan A gorilla's lifespan is normally between 35 and 40 years, although zoo gorillas may live for 50 years or more. Colo, a female western gorilla at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was the oldest known gorilla, at 60 years of age when she died on January 17, 2017.
Intelligence A female gorilla exhibiting tool use by using a tree trunk as a support whilst fishing herbs Gorillas are considered highly intelligent. A few individuals in captivity, such as Koko, have been taught a subset of sign language. Like the other great apes, gorillas can laugh, grieve, have "rich emotional lives", develop strong family bonds, make and use tools, and think about the past and future. Some researchers believe gorillas have spiritual feelings or religious sentiments. They have been shown to have cultures in different areas revolving around different methods of food preparation, and will show individual colour preferences.