7 amazing facts about gorillas that you probably didn’t know

Next to chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas are the closest living relatives to humans. They share at least 95% of their DNA with us, and our two species derive from the same common ancestor.

Despite this, gorilla populations have been sadly neglected by humans. Habitat loss due to increasing human populations and poaching for the bushmeat trade are two of the most dangerous threats to the survival of these great apes: the eastern lowland gorilla is endangered with less than 5000 members left in the wild, while mountain gorilla numbers are down to around 700 and cross river gorillas number at approximately 300.

It’s a tremendous shame, as these mighty apes are some of the most fascinating and complex creatures on our planet. To demonstrate that, here are some intriguing and unusual facts about our chest-beating cousins.

Their silver backs are equivalent to human beards

Photo by Mike Price / Shutterstock
An evidently silverback gorilla. Photo by Mike Price / Shutterstock

The saddle shaped areas of silver hair found on male gorilla’s back shows that a male has reached sexual maturity. Like human beards and lion manes, this distinctive fur helps to communicate to other gorillas in the troop which gorillas are male. The dominant silverback has more than a few grey hairs to worry about: he makes decisions on behalf of the group, determines movement, mediates conflict, protects young gorillas from infanticide and defends against predators.

They’re incredibly shy

A baby gorila inside the Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa. DRC, Central Africa. Photo by LMspencer / Shutterstock
A baby gorila inside the Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa. DRC, Central Africa.
Photo by LMspencer / Shutterstock

Forget the King Kong-esque portrayals of gorillas you’ve seen in films: these highly intelligent apes prefer to live gentle and peaceful lives. Even when disturbed by other animals, gorillas would rather avoid conflict, making noises and gesturing rather than instigating violent behaviour. Their diet is mainly vegetarian, although Western lowland gorillas do indulge in the odd termite or ant.

They have an impressive lifespan

Photo by Maridav / Shutterstock
Photo by Maridav / Shutterstock

Gorillas can reach over 50 years of age in captivity. A western gorilla in Columbus Zoo named Colo is the oldest living gorilla at 59 years of age—after being rejected at birth by her mother, she was raised by zookeepers like a human child, feeding from a bottle and even wearing clothes. They live shorter lives in the wild, although still regularly reach the grand gorilla age of 35 years.

Their sex is remarkably human-like…

Leah with George, her partner, in a face-to-face party. Photo credit: Thomas Breuer / Wildlife Conservation Society
Leah with George, her partner, in a face-to-face party. Photo credit: Thomas Breuer / Wildlife Conservation Society

Face-to-face intercourse between gorillas has been observed and photographed by researchers, proving that these amazing animals share even more similarities with humans than we previously realised. Their great ape cousins, bonobos, are the only other non-human animal known to exhibit similar bedroom behaviour.

…and they swing both ways

Photo by Erni / Shutterstock
Photo by Erni / Shutterstock

Yes, gay gorillas do exist. Homosexual behaviour is usually seen in all-male groups, where close relationships between individuals mean that their social interactions can sometimes leads to promiscuous acts. This doesn’t stop them from mating with females when given the chance. A silverback named Titus who featured in documentary film ‘The Gorilla King’ engaged in sex with both male and female gorillas.

They can learn sign language

Some of Koko the gorilla's untaught signs.
Some of Koko the gorilla’s untaught signs.

As well as using numerous hand gestures to communicate with one another in the wild, gorillas have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at sign language, giving some individuals the incredible ability to communicate closely with humans. Koko, the San Francisco Zoo gorilla who famously adopted kittens and befriended Robin Williams, understands approximately 2000 words of spoken English and is able to respond using ‘GSL’, or gorilla sign language.

They might be religious

Photo by Palenque / Shutterstock
Photo by Palenque / Shutterstock

Having witnessed gorillas experiencing intense human-like emotions such as grief and laughter, some researchers now believe that they are capable of thinking about and viewing the world in a spiritual or religious way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that gorillas believe in God—rather, that they have a compassionate relationship with the world around them and draw meanings from the things they experience. Gorillas are also capable of empathy, imagination and rule-following, three complex behaviours that the concept of religion originates from.  

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