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All About Gorillas

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Video Transcript:

Hey there, I’m Yvonne and you’re watching Color and Chill, the show that soothes your eyes, your ears, and your soul. The videos I make can help you relax, reduce stress, and fall asleep by combining slow movement on the screen with soothing music, soundscapes, or my voice. If you this is something you think you might enjoy, please subscribe and come back to color and chill with me often. Tonight I’m going to share with you some facts about gorillas in a new series I’m calling “Fact to Fall Asleep to” where I slowly, quietly share with you interesting information about a subject while digitally coloring a picture to go with it. So, just settle down in a comfy spot, keep your eyes on the brush strokes painting the picture on the screen until they slowly start to close on their own, and just try to allow yourself to relax as we travel to the rainforests of Africa and spend some time at a little family reunion, getting to know one of our closest primate cousins.

Gorillas are large apes who live mostly on the continent of Africa. As a species, they share 98.3% of their DNA with humans. The only animals who share more DNA with humans than gorillas are chimpanzees and bonobos, who each have a match to our DNA of 98.7%. Like gorillas, chimps and bonobos are members of the great ape family. Speaking of great apes, did you know that apes and monkeys are NOT from the same species? Though they’re often grouped together, there are several characteristics that separate apes and monkeys. Here are a few:

  • apes tend to be much larger than monkeys, with broader chests and more of an upright body position
  • apes don’t have tails like monkeys do
  • apes spend more of their time on the ground than they do in trees and their arms haven’t adapted the same way monkeys have to tree-dwelling and swinging
  • apes rely more on vision than they do on smell, while the opposite is true of monkeys
  • Apes have longer pregnancies and age to maturity more slowly in general than monkeys do

Like humans, gorillas have opposable thumbs and big toes, which allow them to grasp branches, pick up small objects, and eat with one hand. They rarely walk on just their hind legs, preferring to knuckle-walk, using their long arms to help them along. They are able to make and use simple tools, though they don’t often have the need to do so in the wild. They may use sticks to probe holes for insects, measure water depth, or as weapons. They may use the sharp edges of rocks to scrape bark from branches to snack on, coconut fibers as sponges, and branches and logs for ladders. Most use of tools is observed in gorillas in captivity, though it’s not known whether this is because they actually use more tools or whether they’re just more closely observed in captivity. It’s also possible that gorillas in captivity have less natural stimulation and create and use tools as a means to prevent boredom or that when in captivity they may have access to objects in their enclosures that can be turned into tools but which they may not find naturally out in the wild.

Along with their ability to make and use tools, gorillas have unique fingerprints, like humans, but as a bonus, they also have uniquely identifying nose prints. Imagine being able to catch a bank robber by the nose prints they leave behind…well, you could, if that bank robber was a gorilla. 

Gorillas are able to see a rainbow of colors, similar to what we can see. For comparison, dogs are only able to see blue, yellow, and some shades of grey. Bees and butterflies, on the other hand, can see even more colors than we can, including ultraviolet colors. And the mantis shrimp, can detect ten times more color than any other animal on the planet. So once again, we are reminded how close these great apes really are to us humans in so many ways.

Now let’s talk about the different species of gorillas. Bear with me here because it can get a little confusing but we’ll try to keep it as simple as possible. First of all, there are two species of gorilla- the eastern gorilla or the ‘Gorilla beringei’ which live in eastern central Africa and the western gorilla or the ‘Gorilla gorilla,’ which lives in western central Africa. It’s believed that these two species diverged from one another roughly two million years ago. Additionally, each of these species contain two subspecies, making a total of four gorilla subspecies. The Eastern gorilla subspecies are the mountain gorilla and the eastern lowland gorilla. The Western gorilla subspecies are the Western lowland and the Cross-river gorilla. We’re going to spend some time now learning about each of the subspecies. 

We’ll start with the Cross-river gorilla, which is the most mysterious of the gorilla subgroups. Scientifically known as the ‘gorilla gorilla diehli,’ it’s one of the Western subspecies. Although, all of the gorilla subspecies are endangered or critically endangered, the Cross-river gorilla is the rarest of all. The population in the wild is estimated to be only 250-300 individuals and there is only one in captivity in the entire world. This subspecies live in the mountain area between Cameroon and Nigeria, at the top of the Cross River, an area of about 3,000 square miles. Rarely seen in person, most footage of these beautiful creatures is captured on cameras strategically placed in their territory. They seem to be very wary of humans and population estimates have been made mostly indirectly, using nest counts across their territory to guess that the few hundred living in the area are scattered among at least eleven groups. Like other gorillas, the Cross-River Gorilla lives in small groups in a mix of male, female, and young. They look similar to the other Western gorilla subspecies, the Western Lowland Gorilla but have smaller palate and skull measurements.

Despite having larger heads than the Cross-River gorilla, the Western Lowland Gorilla is overall the smallest of the four gorilla subspecies. A fully grown male may weigh up to 400 pounds, with an average weight of about 310 pounds and stands usually around five feet tall but can be up to six feet tall. A female generally measures around 4 feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds. The Western Lowland Gorilla, whose scientific name is simply “Gorilla gorilla gorilla” is the most widespread of all the gorilla subspecies and can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, and Gabón. Since they live in very dense and remote rainforests and swamplands, it’s hard to know the exact number that live in the wild but it’s estimated to be about 100,000 with an additional 4,000 living in zoos throughout the world. Though that number may be much higher than the Cross-River Gorilla, don’t think that the Western Lowland Gorilla is in the free and clear. It’s estimated that their population has declined by 60% over the past twenty-five years, due to encroachment on their territory by humans, poaching, and disease. Scientists believe that, even if all the threats to western lowland gorillas were removed right now, they’d still need about 75 years to recover. They have brownish-grey fur, auburn chests, and a few other traits that differentiate them from the other gorilla subspecies, such as wider skulls, pronounced brow ridges, smaller ears, and big toes that are spread further apart from their other four toes than is seen in other subspecies.

Now that we’ve learned about both subspecies of the western gorillas, let’s head back over to eastern central Africa and meet the Eastern lowland gorilla. 

The largest of the four gorilla subspecies, the Eastern Lowland’s scientific name is the “Gorilla beringei graueri” and is also known as ‘Grauer’s gorilla,’ a name that’s meant to replace ‘eastern lowland’ as some of this subspecies does not, in fact, live in the lowlands. No matter what we call them, they’re magnificent and they’re critically endangered. In the mid-1990s, there were nearly 17,000 of this subspecies living in the wild but since then, at least 50% of the population has died off, leaving them just as in danger of extinction as the rest of their kind. The Eastern Lowlands have large hands, stocky bodies, and shorter muzzles than the other subspecies. A percentage of their population resides in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which is protected land. Despite this, however, rebels and illegal poachers encroaching the park borders continue to be a threat to this subspecies. 

Finally, we will talk about the Mountain Gorilla, or the “Gorilla beringei beringei.’ Living in the forests of the mountains of central Africa, this subgroup is a group of hope. Though their current population is very low, at only roughly 1,063 individuals, they are the only subgroup considered endangered instead of critically endangered at this point. This is because, despite the odds, their population is growing. In fact, at one point, it was thought that they’d be extinct by the end of the 20th century. However, they’ve managed to defy that prediction, with the help of major conservation efforts. As they tend to live in higher mountainous regions than other gorillas, at elevations of around 8-13,000 feet, they have comparatively thicker, fuller fur, which helps them survive in areas where the temperatures often drop below freezing. That doesn’t help, however, when they’re forced to higher and higher territories because of human encroachment. Even their thick, warm fur isn’t suitable for the cold and dangerous conditions they frequently have found themselves in. 

A little more than half of the Mountain Gorilla population live in the Virunga Volcanic Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, with the remainder living in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In 2010, there were 480 mountain gorillas counted living in the Virunga Mountains and now the population is up to 604 individuals, meaning not only are they holding steady, but they’re growing as well, which is a very good sign, especially since this subspecies cannot survive in captivity, making it crucial that they’re able to remain in the wild.

I’d like to note here that it is suspected, and may be proven in the near future, that there is a third subspecies of eastern gorilla living in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as they seem to have distinct characteristics, both physical and behavioral, that separate them from the other mountain gorillas living in the park. but because of the small population size, it’s difficult to get the samples needed for testing to determine whether they are actually physically and genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate subspecies so for now, they are simply counted as Mountain Gorillas.

Now that we’ve delved into each of the subspecies, let’s talk about gorilla history, behaviors, family life, and more.

Though gorillas have undoubtedly been around for as long as human beings, considering that we’re descended from a common ancestor, the name gorilla comes from the word “Gorillae,” which is a Greek word for “hairy woman,” those Greek men were undoubtedly real charmers, and was used by Hanno the Navigator, a Carthagainian explorer who first spotted gorillas, or some other species of ape or monkey, nobody really knows for sure, when he was on an expedition in the area now known as the Sierra Leone. Members of the expedition reported to have encountered “savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called Gorillae.” They took back skins of a gorillae woman and it’s said that it was kept in the ancient city of Carthage, located in modern  day Tunisia, a country in North Africa, until it was destroyed in the Punic Wars, in 146 BC. 

Records from 16th century English sailor, Andrew Battel spoke of two man-like apes that would visit the unattended campfire he saw while captured by the Portuguese in West Africa.  Not much else was reported about gorillas until Jefferies Wyman, an American naturalist, and Thomas Staughton Savage, an American missionary and doctor, obtained and described specimens they got in Liberia in 1847 as the gorilla that had been named by Hanno and in 1902, a German officer by the name of Captain Robert von Beringe first discovered the mountain gorilla subspecies, which is why it’s scientific name is Gorilla beringei beringei.

It should also be noted here that the people living in African countries near gorillas had undoubtedly discovered and known about them this whole time but there is little in the way of scientific literature to tell us what they knew about the animals, which is one of the reasons why, as is common place in most Western accounts of history and science, that European and American men are often reported as the first discoverers of things. The fact is, that much historical scientific literature about apes often confused them with pygmy tribesmen of Africa, an unfortunate stereotype which has continued to pop up through modern history, leading to racist slurs and other unfortunate misconceptions and predjudices against African people and people of African descent. 

Moving on from that though, since 1902, lots of research has been dedicated to studying gorillas. One very important researcher was Dian Fossey, who, in 1963, began to study mountain gorillas. Twenty years later, she published a book called “Gorillas in the Mist” and a movie based on the book was made three years later, just a year after her untimely death, which sealed her legacy and brought the issue of gorilla conservation to the mainstream of human conciseness, leading to our current dedication to learning more about these animals in order to help protect them and, hopefully, save all the subspecies from extinction. As we are trying to relax and have happy dreams tonight, I will save you the diatribe about the importance of gorilla conservation, only saying that it is truly important and if you’d like to help the efforts, financially, or by learning more about different ways to contribute, I will add some links in the description below about how you can help. But other than that, let’s get back into talking a bit about daily life and familial structure. Please keep in mind that some of this information is stereotypical, as it is an attempt to describe the habits of all gorillas and behaviors may be somewhat different within the individual subspecies.

The gorilla’s massive size and strength, habit of beating on their chests, and intimidating features can give them the appearance of being ferocious beasts, and though, undoubtedly, you can find videos on the internet to support this stereotype, gorillas are actually normally very gentle animals. They are mostly herbivores who eat roots, fruits, shoots, and whatever other vegetation they can get their hands on like wild celery, bamboo, nettles, and thistles. Some lowland gorillas may also eat insects, but other than that, they’re pretty much vegans. In fact, a male gorilla may eat up to 40 pounds of vegetation in a day. Because of the amount of water found in the foods they eat, they rarely need to drink anything else. In fact, it appears gorillas don’t much like water at all, hiding from rain, and sometimes trying to cross streams without actually getting wet, although, on occasion, baby gorillas have been observed playing in water and, one researcher, Jean Felix Kinani, claimed in 2013, to see several mountain gorillas drinking water from a stream using the backs of their hands at the Rwebeya stream in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and took photos to back his observations up.

After eating so much, it’s natural that a gorilla also poops a lot. They’ll poop every few hours throughout the day, with each bowel movement being as large as a humans, but the frequency means each individual produces a lot more waste over the course of the day than their human cousins. Entire scientific teams are put together to study gorilla poop in the wild, which can tell them about their health, dietary habits, stress levels, hormonal cycles, illnesses, familial patterns and more. It’s pretty amazing that so much can be discovered from something so gross but it’s especially useful since it can be hard to actually track gorillas in the wild so learning from bowel movements they’ve left behind can serve as the next best thing. Luckily for these researchers, being herbivores, gorilla poop isn’t all that smelly.

A typical gorilla’s day starts around sunrise when they wake up and begin looking for food, a task which takes up most of their morning. In general, a day can be broken down with about 30% of the day spent eating, 40% resting, and the final 30% traveling. They usually travel less than a half a mile per day, within a range of about 12 square miles that they tend to spend their lives within. This small area of daily travel within a larger home area allows for regrowth of vegetation in between visits to a space. Afternoons are spent mostly resting and playing. Young gorillas hug, wrestle, bite, hit, and pull each other to the ground, a lot like roughhousing human kids might. Though gorillas don’t normally swing from branches or vines like they’ve been portrayed to do in movies, young gorillas may do some minimal swinging, usually from vines hanging close to the ground and they may also spend some time in trees, jumping around and playing. When gorillas do climb trees, they grasp with all fours and shimmy up. Like many other primates, but not like humans, gorilla feet are uniquely adapted for climbing, with a big toe that functions similarly to our thumbs and helps them grab on. Even adult gorillas, depending on the subspecies, sometimes climb trees to build their nests, scavenge for fruit, and possibly to get a better lookout of what’s going on around them. As nighttime approaches, gorillas begin constructing nests, either on the ground, or in trees, out of branches and leaves. They may even make pillows out of leaves, as well as protective covers for their heads during times when it’s raining. Each gorilla has its own nest, with the exception of baby gorillas, who will sleep with their mothers for the first two to three years of their lives. Scientists can study abandoned nests, along with poops, to learn more about specific groups and estimate population size. The daily creation of new nests is necessary since they sleep in a different spot each night but it also helps avoid parasites that may nest in bedding. Gorillas tend to sleep about 12 hours each night, sometimes even snoring while they snooze, and then they wake up to start the day and their adventures all over again. 

Some gorillas in captivity have been taught sign language and have been able to communicate with human using simple words and sentences but they also have their own language to communicate with each other. Gorillas have upwards of 16 different types of calls including short barks if they’re curious and roars and hoots used to scare and intimidate, as well as different vocalizations for use while searching for food, courting, and teaching survival skills. This unique language allows gorillas to communicate with other members of their group, which can include anywhere from 5-35, members, usually averaging about 25-35. The leader of each group is a male adult gorilla, known as a silverback, because of the silver saddle across the back and hips that they develop at around 12-years of age. Before that, young male gorillas are called “black backs.” Silverbacks tend to be the biggest male, usually around six feet tall and weighing 350 pounds or more. He is responsible for leading and protecting his group, which will also be made up of adult females, their offspring, and some other, younger male and female gorillas. He will lead them in migration, feeding, and resting and will fight to the death if necessary to protect his group. Of course, before that, he’ll attempt to intimidate other animals and predators by standing on his hind feet, beating his chest with his fists, stomping his feet, tearing up and throwing plants, roaring, and galloping in a mock attack on four feet to scare them off. 

Gorillas give birth, on average, about every four years, to a single baby, after an approximately 8 and a half month pregnancy. A baby weighs about 5.5 pounds at birth and develops rapidly, significantly faster than human babies. By 10 months old, a baby is walking and by three years old, they’re pretty much independent. By six years old, a female gorilla is considered mature, though she will continue gaining weight for several years. Males, however, don’t mature fully until they’re ten to twelve years old. Once the fur on their backs starts to turn from black to silver, it’s time for them to find a new group. Most mature males, and about half of the mature females will leave a birth troop and join another troop instead. This helps prevent interbreeding among groups. 

The average lifespan of a gorilla can range anywhere from 35-50 years but the oldest gorilla on record is a western lowland gorilla named Fatou, who at the time of this recording in 2021, is still alive at 64 years old and is enjoying her retirement days at the Berlin Zoo in Germany, where she’s been living since approximately 1959 after being captured from the wild and brought to France by a sailor when she was still a baby.

Finally, though this is a sad subject, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that when a gorilla dies, it’s commonplace for the rest of the tribe to show signs of mourning. They’ve been observed touching, licking, grooming, and just remaining close to a loved one’s body after a death. Even when gorillas come upon the body of a member of a different tribe, they tend to show sadness and reverence for the body, often gathering around the deceased. The closer in relation a gorilla is to the dead, the longer they tend to stay with the body and the more intense their mourning over the loss seems to be.  In times when aggression towards a corpse has been observed, it’s been questioned whether it was actually a sign of frustration at being unable to wake the dead. Either way, the emotion of grief, once supposed to be only human, is definitely shared with gorillas.

Well, I don’t know about you but I’ve learned so much about gorillas and I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to share this information with you. If you enjoyed this content, please like this video and subscribe to this channel. If there are any subjects you’d like me to research for future episodes of Facts to Fall Asleep to, please let me know in the comments. I thank you so much for spending time and relaxing with me tonight. If you’re still awake, I suggest checking out one of the other videos on this channel that include more facts, bedtime stories, music, breathing exercises, and soundscapes to help you relax. I hope to see you again soon back here so that we can color and chill together again. Bye.