10 Thought-Provoking Gorilla Facts

A baby mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, clings to its mother amid the dense vegetation.

Richard Gray / Getty Images  

Gorillas have long captured the imagination of human beings. Since their existence became known in Western culture in the 1860s, they have been featured in countless stories, including King Kong, Tarzan, and Conan the Barbarian.

Yes, gorillas are big — they are the largest living primates on the planet. But popular culture has often exaggerated their size, and they've often been depicted as aggressive, incredibly strong, dumb, and scary. While adult male gorillas can definitely be aggressive and physically intimidating in certain situations, they spend much of their time eating, sleeping, grooming, and hanging out with family and friends in groups scientists call troops. In fact, gorillas are very family-oriented and spend most of their time with relatives.

Gorillas are able to live successfully in a variety of ecosystems in western and central Africa, and consume a diverse, but mostly plant-based diet, plus insects. Some troops move around a lot to find food, some tend to stay put if they have enough food around.

All species and subspecies of gorillas are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.

1. There Are Several Types of Gorillas

There are two species: eastern gorilla and western gorilla, and four (some scientists argue for five) subspecies.

The western lowland gorilla is the most populous of all the subspecies; there are about 100,000 of them living in the wild. They inhabit lower elevation forests and swamps in central Africa. The Cross River gorillas — which number only about 250, weren't surveyed until the 1980s and weren't captured on video until 2009. They live in the hills on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, at the headwaters of the Cross River.

Eastern gorillas include mountain gorillas (about 1,050 individuals) and eastern lowland gorillas (fewer than 4,000 individuals, down from 17,000 in the 1990s). Mountain gorillas are the hairiest of the species, since they live in the cloud forests of the Virunga Volcanoes at higher elevations, where temperatures are colder. Eastern lowland gorillas are the largest of all the gorilla species, and have shorter hair than mountain gorillas. Eastern lowland gorillas are found only in the rainforests of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

2. Genetically, Gorillas Are Very Closely Related to Humans

Only chimpanzees and bonobos share more DNA with human beings than gorillas, who share 95% to 97% of our DNA.

3. Their Reproductive Lives Are Similar to Humans'

Every 30 days or so, female gorillas have a period and, like humans, can get pregnant at any time of the year (most other animals have less frequent, seasonal estrus cycles). Pregnant gorillas have an 8.5-month-long gestation period, and their babies are highly vulnerable, like human offspring. Gorilla babies stay in physical contact with their mothers for the first five months of their lives and nurse for several years. It's not until a year and half after birth that young gorillas begin to spend significant time away from their mothers, and not until age 3 or later that they are weaned. Still, young gorillas develop about twice as fast as human children, and they are able to get pregnant at around age 10.

4. They Use Tools

Silverback Gorilla Eating Peanut Butter out of Pinecone
A silverback gorilla uses a twig as a tool to dig out peanut butter that was smeared inside of a pinecone.

Pam Susemiehl / Getty Images

Both captive and wild western lowland gorillas have been seen using tools. Likely since they spend so much time in forested areas where they are tougher for humans to observe, wild gorillas have only been seen using tools a few times — but some scientists expect they are regular tool-users. In one case, a female gorilla used a stick to measure the depth of water, and another time as a walking pole while crossing deep water. They've also been seen creating a bridge over water using a log.

In captivity, gorillas have been seen throwing sticks into a tree to knock food from it; using sticks to threaten other gorillas; using found material to create slippers to walk over snow; creating ladders out of logs to climb over obstructions, and more.

5. Male Silverback Gorillas Will Defend Their Troop With Their Lives

Gorillas don't have many predators; human beings are the most significant killer of gorillas, and leopards might also sometimes attack gorillas, though evidence is scarce. Gorilla remains have been found in the scat of leopards, but it may have been from a leopard scavenging an already dead gorilla.

When a human, an external gorilla, or other animal threatens a troop of gorillas, the dominant male who is the leader (often visually identified by a stripe of silvery hair down his back) will step up and challenge the intruder. Most of the time, these conflicts are resolved with intimidating behaviors like roaring and chest beating. Usually, the threat of violence gets other animals to back down without any physical fighting taking place, but silverbacks can and do fight to the death.

6. They Have Fingerprints and Opposable Thumbs

Gorilla staring at us.
ogre64 / Getty Images

Like human beings, gorillas have unique fingerprints (and toe prints) and scientists are able to use these to differentiate between gorillas when they are studying them. Also like us, they have an opposable thumb, which means they can grasp and hold objects much like we can.

However, gorillas also have an opposable big toe (humans don't) so they can manipulate things with their hands and feet — and they are still able to walk upright, though they tend to move around more on their hands. Scientists used to think that having an opposable big toe would preclude bipedalism, but fossil evidence shows that humans lost our opposable big toe late in evolution, after early humans started walking upright — and, as gorillas show, it is possible to walk with opposable toes.

7. They Are 10 Times Stronger Than a Football Player

Gorillas aren't that much taller than humans, with average heights being 4-6 feet (the tallest gorilla ever recorded was 6'5"), but they are generally larger and more muscular, weighing in at 300-500 pounds.

Gorillas' big round bellies aren't from fat; they have a larger and more complex digestive system that allows them to eat primarily plants, including types of wood. Their muscular, broad chests and long arm span (up to a foot wider in span than humans) means that their arms and backs are very strong, and so capable of lifting, pushing, and hitting far more powerfully than a similarly sized human being.

8. They Build Nests

Western Lowland Gorilla.
Western lowland gorilla. Alan_Lagadu / Getty Images

Both in the daytime and at night, gorillas like to build simple nests to get comfortable. Generally, gorillas build nests on the ground, but sometimes they will build them in trees. Nests are usually constructed from branches, leaves, and whatever other vegetation is around.Because they move around to find food, their nests are rebuilt each time they need one, and this has benefits for reducing pests, which like to infest nest-like material in many species.

9. Gorillas Can Communicate With People

Koko was a female western lowland gorilla who was born at the San Francisco Zoo. Over her life, she was taught over 1,000 different signs, which she combined in various configurations to communicate, and she could understand around 2,000 different words, putting her comprehension at the level of a 3-year-old child. Other experiments have shown gorillas (along with other primates) are able to learn human-taught languages.

10. Gorillas Are Endangered

Both gorilla species are endangered, but there is some hope. Mountain gorilla populations declined to around 600 by 1989 due to habitat destruction and poaching, but intensive conservation efforts have increased that number to more than 1,050 today.

The eastern lowland gorilla is threatened by poachers and habitat loss. Because of ongoing civil conflict in the region, it's incredibly hard for the guards in Kahuzi-Biega National Park to protect them.

Western lowland gorillas are more numerous than other subspecies, but lose an estimated 5% of their population each year due to three main causes: They are killed for food (bushmeat) for people, and baby gorillas are taken from their parents and sold as pets. Their body parts are also used in magic charms. Another threat is habitat loss due to logging of the trees in their rainforest home. Lastly, gorillas are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans are, and Ebola has killed up to 1/3 of the population of wild western lowland gorillas.

Save the Gorillas

  • If you are in the United States, write an email or letter to your senator or representative to remind them to continue to fund the Great Ape Conservation Fund, which helps support a wide range of gorilla conservation projects around the world.
  • Be sure to recycle unused cell phones and electronics. Metals used in these devices are mined in gorilla habitats in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recycling reduces demand for the metals.
  • Talk to your friends and family so they understand that wild animals do not make suitable pets — especially if they pass around memes on social media or talk about wanting to own a baby gorilla or other wild animal. Though they may seem harmless, these attitudes drive demand for poachers to steal baby gorillas and other young animals from the wild.
  • Donate money to a conservation organization like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
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