The apes occupy a special place in man's mind. The chimpanzee is regarded
with affection but the gorilla is shrouded with fear. Why? The elephant is larger, the tiger more dangerous, and, from the point of view of health and economic factors, the rat is considerably greater threat to man's existence. Yet
none of these inspires the almost supernatural dread and awe that the gorilla
does. The gorilla has grown into King Kong, a name synonymous with brute force.
The gorilla is everyone's favorite monster and scapegoat.
The idea that the gorilla is a ferocious ogre dies hard. Part of the myth of
the hairy humanoid is that it should be terrible. With some reluctance the
public now seems to be giving up the belief in the monster that drives off
elephants with clubs, carries off native women and strangles native men, and
kills leopards with a single blow. With disappointment it learns to accept
evidence that even a gorilla can occasionally be killed by a leopard>.
Gorillas share many of the same emotions as man; they are subject to the same
stresses, and react similarly to fear. They can be loving and gentle; they
desperately need affection and will pine and die if the one they regard as
"mother" goes away; they love to show off, take advantage of people, laugh, cry,
and temper tantrums.
Until recently, gorillas were split into two subspecies, the Western (or
Lowland or Coast) gorilla (Pan gorilla gorilla), and the Eastern or
Mountain gorilla, Pan gorilla beringei. The two differ in many features.
The Mountain gorilla is much blacker in color, with very long hair as it lives
at high altitudes; it has shorter arms and slightly shorter legs, broader hands
and feet, with a big toe which is brought more into line with other toes (very
like that in man's foot), and even larger jaws and teeth. The Mountain gorilla
lives at high altitudes in the Virunga volcanoes, on the Congo-Uganda-Rwanda
border north of Lake Kivu, and nearly a thousand miles to the east of the
nearest Western gorillas.
It is now recognized that the question is not quite so clearcut. Living near
to the Mountain gorilla but at lower altitudes is a distinct population which
can be called the Eastern Lowland gorilla. In form it is rather intermediate
between the two and has been recognized as a third subspecies, named Pan
gorilla graueri. It is less jet black than the Mountain gorilla and lacks
the long silky hair. It can be distinguished from both the others by its long
All gorillas live in a few heavily forested ares in Africa. Scientists have
divided them into three groups. Most of the gorillas you seen in zoos and
museaums are western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). As many
as a hundred thousand live in the tropical rain forests of west Africa. Fully
grown western lowland gorillas vary in size from one to another.
The eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) lives in the
rain forests of central Africa. There are fewer than two dozen eastern lowland
gorillas living in captivity and probably only several thousand living in the
wild today. They are a bit larger than their western relatives and they have
darker hair color and slightly longer jaws and teeth.
Gorillas are almost completely terrestrial. Youngsters and females do venture
into the trees at night, where they sleep in foliage nests; but the heavy males
build nests on the ground becasue their large size precludes much arboreal
The gorilla is the largest and heaviest of the primates; the head is
especially large, and it has highly developed chest muscles. An adult male can
weigh 500 pounds (220kg); females are smaller.
They are mainly vegetarian, though they will take small invertebrates when
they find them, and being large animals they require a considerable food
intake. Gorillas live on bamboo shoots, wild celery and the buds of mountain trees. Heavy and frequent rain keep these plants juicy with sap, making it unnecessary
for the apes to seek water at streams or pools. The mountain bamboo grows in
thick patches laced together by creeping vines into a formidable barrier against
man. In their constant travels, gorillas fashion tunnels through this tangled
jungle and often lurk in these dark trails. The gorilla is really retiring,
almost shy, and wishes to avoid contact with man.
Social groups are generally based upon a single mature "silverback" male with
a number of immature males and mature females and youngsters. Newly mature males
may be forced to leave the group and stay solitary until they can get together a
group of females of their own.
The lone male gorillas travel over very wide distances. When they join a
troop they travel with it for as long as a year, or even more. They wander
alone, not in groups; some may never join a troop, others seem to have their
favorite troops that they return to again abd again.
Not all wandering males are completely adult: some still have black backs.
Some loners are accompanied by an infant or juvenile. Perhaps, this is how new
groups are started. A troop does not have a territory, that is, there is no area
exclusive to itself which it defends against intruders. Its wanderings are,
however, restricted to a certain area, different parts of which it regularly
visits; but the whole area is amicably shared with others. Such an area is
called a home range.
All female and young gorillas live in a social groups. To protect each troop,
and serve as its leader, there is a single fully adult, silverback male. Other
adult males wander alone.
Relations within a gorilla troop are peaceful, without the continual
threatening and scrapping that goes in some other Primate societies, such as
resus monkeys and baboons. Within the troop, there is a rank order just as in a
baboon troop; but it is not as rigid nor as all-pervasive. All silverbacks are
dominant and have a linear hierarchy among themselves when there are loners
attached to the troop.
Among the females, rank order is poorly marked, except that a female with an
infant assumes a temporary high status.
Almost invariably gorillas have only one young at a birth. The newborn
gorilla is a flesh-colored, slightly greyish without much hair except on the top
of the head; but the hair grows quickly, especially on the back - the chest and
belly remain almost bare for quite a long time. The baby gorilla develops a
white tuft on the rump which is not lost until the fourth year.
At birth, the baby gorilla weighs about 3.5-5.25 lbs, less than a human baby.
During the first week a little weight is lost, but after that it is gained