Western Gorilla
(Gorilla gorilla)
Scientific classification

Type species
Troglodytes gorilla
Savage, 1847

Gorilla gorilla
Gorilla beringei

distribution of Gorilla

Gorillas are the largest of the living primates. They are ground-dwelling and predominantly herbivorous. They inhabit the forests of central Africa. Gorillas are divided into two species and (still under debate as of 2008) either four or five subspecies. The DNA of gorillas is 98%–99% identical to that of a human,[2] and they are the next closest living relatives to humans after the two chimpanzee species.

Gorillas live in tropical or subtropical forests. Although their range covers a small percentage of 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 2,200–4,300 metres (7,200–14,100 ft). Lowland Gorillas live in dense forests and lowland swamps and marshes as low as sea level.


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.[3] The name was derived from the Greek word Gorillai (a "tribe of hairy women") described by Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian navigator and possible visitor (circa 480 BC) to the area that later became Sierra Leone.[4]

Evolution and classification

Female gorilla

The closest relatives of gorillas are chimpanzees and humans, from which gorillas diverged about 7 million years ago.[5] Human genes differ only 1.6% on average from their corresponding gorilla genes in their sequence, but there is further difference in how many copies each gene has.[6]

Until recently there was considered to be a single gorilla species, with three subspecies: the Western Lowland Gorilla, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and the Mountain Gorilla.[7][8] There is now agreement that there are two species with two subspecies each. More recently it has been claimed that a third subspecies exists in one of the species.

Primatologists continue to explore the relationships between various gorilla populations.[7] The species and subspecies listed here are the ones upon which most scientists agree.[citation needed]

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.

Physical characteristics

Gorillas move around by knuckle-walking. Adult males range in height from 1.65–1.75 metres (5 ft 5 in – 5 ft 9 in), and in weight from 140–200 kg (310–440 lb). Adult females are often half the size of a silverback, averaging about 1.4 metres (4 ft 7 in) tall and 100 kg (220 lb). Occasionally, a silverback of over 1.8 metres (5 ft 11 in) and 230 kg (510 lb) has been recorded in the wild. However, obese gorillas in captivity have reached a weight of 270 kg (600 lb).[9] Gorillas have a facial structure which is described as mandibular prognathism, that is, their mandible protrudes farther out than the maxilla.

The Eastern Gorilla is more darkly colored 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 Gorilla.[10]

Almost all gorillas share the same blood type (B)[11] and, like humans, have individual finger prints.[12]


Group life

"Blackback" redirects here. For other uses, see Blackback (disambiguation).

"Silverback" redirects here. For other uses, see Silverback (disambiguation).

A silverback is an adult male gorilla, typically more than 12 years of age and named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back. A silverback gorilla has large canine teeth that come with maturity. Blackbacks are sexually mature males of up to 11 years of age.

A silverback gorilla portrait

Silverbacks are the strong, dominant troop leaders. Each typically leads a troop (group size ranges from 5 to 30) and is in 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. Blackbacks may serve as backup protection.

Males will slowly begin to leave their original troop when they are about 11 years old, traveling alone or with a group of other males for 2–5 years before being able to attract females to form a new group and start breeding. While infant gorillas normally stay with their mother for 3–4 years, silverbacks will care for weaned young orphans, though never to the extent of carrying the little gorillas. If challenged by a younger or even by an outsider male, a silverback will scream, beat his chest, break branches, bare his teeth, then charge forward. Sometimes a younger male in the group can take over leadership from an old male. If the leader is killed by disease, accident, fighting or poachers, the group will split up, as the animals disperse to look for a new protective male. Occasionally, a group may be taken over in its entirety by another male. There is a strong risk that the new male will kill the infants of the dead silverback.

Food and foraging

Female and baby gorillas

Gorillas are herbivores,[13] eating fruits, leaves, and shoots. Further they are classified as foliovores. Much like other animals that feed on plants and shoots, they sometimes ingest small insects as well.[14] Gorillas spend most of the day eating. Their large sagittal crest and long canines allow them to crush hard plants like bamboo. Lowland gorillas feed mainly on fruit while Mountain gorillas feed mostly on herbs, stems and roots.[10]

Reproduction and lifespan

Gestation is 8½ months. There are typically 3 to 4 years between births. Infants stay with their mothers for 3–4 years. Females mature at 10–12 years (earlier in captivity); males at 11–13 years. Lifespan is between 30–50 years, although there have been exceptions. For example the Dallas Zoo's Jenny lived to the age of 55.[15][16][17] Recently, gorillas have been observed engaging in face-to-face sex, a trait that was once considered unique to humans and the Bonobo.[18]


Gorillas are closely related to humans and are considered highly intelligent. A few individuals in captivity, such as Koko, have been taught a subset of sign language (see animal language for a discussion).

Tool use

A female gorilla exhibiting tool use by using a tree trunk as a support whilst fishing

The following observations were made by a team led by Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in September 2005. Gorillas are now known to use tools in the wild. A female gorilla in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo was recorded using a stick as if to gauge the depth of water whilst crossing a swamp. A second female was seen using a tree stump as a bridge and also as a support whilst fishing in the swamp. This means that all of the great apes are now known to use tools.[19]

In September 2005, a two and a half year old gorilla in the Republic of Congo was discovered using rocks to smash open palm nuts inside a game sanctuary.[20] While this was the first such observation for a gorilla, over 40 years previously chimpanzees had been seen using tools in the wild, famously 'fishing' for termites. Great apes are endowed with a semi-precision grip, and certainly have been able to use both simple tools and even weapons, by improvising a club from a convenient fallen branch.


The word "gorilla" comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast. They encountered "a savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and who our interpreters called Gorillae".[21] 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.[7]

American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage obtained the first specimens (the skull and other bones) during his time in Liberia in Africa.[3] The first scientific description of gorillas dates back to the publication of by Savage and the naturalist Jeffries Wyman in 1847 in Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History,[22][23] where Troglodytes gorilla is described, now known as the Western Gorilla. Other species of gorilla are described in the next couple of years.[7]

Explorer Paul du Chaillu was the first westerner to see a live gorilla during his travel through western equatorial Africa from 1856 to 1859. He brought dead specimens to the U.K in 1861.[24][25]

The first systematic study was not conducted until the 1920s, when Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History traveled to Africa to hunt for an animal to be shot and stuffed. On his first trip he was accompanied by his friends Mary Bradley, a famous mystery writer, and her husband. After their trip, Mary Bradley wrote On the Gorilla Trail. She later became an advocate for the conservation of gorillas and wrote several more books (mainly for children). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Yerkes and his wife Ava helped further the study of gorillas when they sent Harold Bigham to Africa. Yerkes also wrote a book in 1929 about the great apes.

After World War 2, George Schaller was one of the first researchers to go into the field and study primates. In 1959, he conducted a systematic study of the mountain gorilla in the wild and published his work. Years later, at the behest of Louis Leakey and the National Geographic, Dian Fossey conducted a much longer and more comprehensive study of the Mountain Gorilla. It was not until she published her work that many misconceptions and myths about gorillas were finally disproved, including the myth that gorillas are violent.


Both species of gorilla are endangered, and have been subject to intense poaching for a long time. Threats to gorilla survival include habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. In 2004 a population of several hundred gorillas in the Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo was essentially wiped out by the Ebola virus.[26] A 2006 study published in Science concluded that more than 5,000 gorillas may have died in recent outbreaks of the Ebola virus in central Africa. The researchers indicated that in conjunction with commercial hunting of these apes, the virus creates "a recipe for rapid ecological extinction."[27] Conservation efforts include the Great Ape Survival Project, a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and also an international treaty, the Agreement on the Conservation of Gorillas and Their Habitats, concluded under UNEP-administered Convention on Migratory Species. The Gorilla Agreement is the first legally binding instrument exclusively targeting Gorilla conservation and came into effect on 1 June 2008.

Cultural references

Main article: Gorillas in popular culture

Since they came to the attention of western society in the 1860s, gorillas have been a recurring element of many aspects of popular culture and media. For example, gorillas have featured prominently in monstrous fantasy films such as King Kong, and pulp fiction such as the stories of Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian have featured gorillas as physical opponents to the titular protagonists.

See also


  1. ^ a b Groves, C. P. (2005). Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 181–182. ISBN 0-801-88221-4. OCLC 62265494.
  2. ^ In a talk presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association on November 20, 1999, Jonathan Marks stated: "Humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas are within two percentage points of one another genetically." Jonathan Marks. "What It Really Means To Be 99% Chimpanzee". Retrieved 2006-10-10.
  3. ^ a b Conniff R. Discovering gorilla. Evolutionary Anthropology, 18: 55-61. doi:10.1002/evan.20203
  4. ^ Müller, C. (1855–61). Geographici Graeci Minores. pp. 1.1–14: text and trans. Ed, J. Blomqvist (1979).((cite book)): CS1 maint: date format (link)
  5. ^ Glazko GV, Nei M (2003). "Estimation of divergence times for major lineages of primate species". Mol. Biol. Evol. 20 (3): 424–34. doi:10.1093/molbev/msg050. PMID 12644563. ((cite journal)): Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  6. ^ Goidts V, Armengol L, Schempp W; et al. (2006). "Identification of large-scale human-specific copy number differences by inter-species array comparative genomic hybridization". Hum. Genet. 119 (1–2): 185–98. doi:10.1007/s00439-005-0130-9. PMID 16395594. ((cite journal)): Explicit use of et al. in: |author= (help); Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ a b c d Groves, Colin (2002). "A history of gorilla taxonomy" (PDF). Gorilla Biology: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, Andrea B. Taylor & Michele L. Goldsmith (editors). Cambridge University Press: 15–34. doi:10.2277/0521792819. ((cite journal)): Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Stewart, Kelly J. (2001). "Mountain Gorillas of the Virungas". Fathom / Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2008-09-11. ((cite web)): Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  9. ^ "Gorilla - The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition". bartleby.com. Archived from the original on 2008-02-12. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
  10. ^ a b "Gorilla Information: A gorilla's habitat and diet".
  11. ^ Glass, Bonnie B. (2001). "Evolution of the Human". Retrieved 2007-10-22.
  12. ^ "Santa Barbara Zoo - Western Lowland Gorilla". santabarbarazoo.org. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
  13. ^ "Gorilla gorilla: Information". animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Retrieved 2008-03-26.
  14. ^ "Looking at Ape Diets: Myths, Realities, and Rationalizations". beyondveg.com. Retrieved 2007-01-03.
  15. ^ .tv3.co.nz, World's oldest gorilla celebrates 55th birthday[dead link]
  16. ^ gmanews.tv/story, Gorilla celebrates 55th birthday with frozen cake
  17. ^ Associated Press, Oldest living gorilla dies at 55[dead link], Houston Chronicle, 2008-08-05. Retrieved 2008-09-05.
  18. ^ Caught in the act! Gorillas mate face to face
  19. ^ Breuer, T (2005). "First Observation of Tool Use in Wild Gorillas". PLoS Biol. 3 (11): e380. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030380. PMID doi:[https://doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0030380 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030380 16187795 '"`UNIQ--templatestyles-0000003D-QINU`"'[[doi (identifier)|doi]]:[https://doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0030380 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030380]]. ((cite journal)): Check |pmid= value (help); External link in |pmid= (help); Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help); templatestyles stripmarker in |pmid= at position 10 (help)CS1 maint: unflagged free DOI (link)
  20. ^ "A Tough Nut To Crack For Evolution". CBS News. 2005-10-18. Retrieved 2006-10-18.
  21. ^ Periplus of Hanno, final paragraph
  22. ^ Savage TS. (1847). Communication describing the external character and habits of a new species of Troglodytes (T. gorilla). Boston Soc Nat Hist: 245–247.
  23. ^ Savage TS, Wyman J. (1847). Notice of the external characters and habits of Troglodytes gorilla, a new species of orang from the Gaboon River, osteology of the same. Boston J Nat Hist 5:417–443.
  24. ^ McCook, S. (1996). ""It May Be Truth, but It Is Not Evidence": Paul du Chaillu and the Legitimation of Evidence in the Field Sciences". Osiris. 11: 177–197. doi:10.1086/368759.
  25. ^ A History of Museum Victoria: Melbourne 1865: Gorillas at the Museum
  26. ^ "Gorillas infecting each other with Ebola". NewScientist.com. 2006-07-10. Retrieved 2006-07-10.
  27. ^ "Ebola 'kills over 5,000 gorillas'". News.bbc.co.uk. 2006-12-08. Retrieved 2006-12-09.