Studying Gorilla Behavior and Ecology

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is the leading organization studying mountain gorillas, and supports studies of Grauer’s gorillas as well. This research focuses on gorilla behavior and ecology, and is used to: inform conservation policies, enrich our knowledge of the great apes, and to learn how to protect them from extinction.

Studying mountain gorillas at Karisoke™

Groups of gorillas are habituated to human presence for daily observation and protectionSince Dr. Dian Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center and began studying mountain gorillas in 1967, we have acquired an unparalleled amount of field expertise and data about mountain gorillas and their habitat, as well as the biodiversity of the region.  Each year, Karisoke staff spend thousands of hours collecting basic information about the mountain gorillas, including their ranging patterns, changes in group composition (such as births, deaths, transfers), feeding and social behavior, health status, and major events (such as interactions among groups, group membership changes, and dominance shifts).  Our databases are some of the longest running and largest in the world and are used by us and our colleagues in Rwanda and internationally to answer critical questions concerning the basic biology of the subspecies and practical issues regarding their survival.

Much of what the scientific community knows about gorillas has come from the research at Karisoke. For example:

  • Mountain gorilla groups are structured around a dominant male, multiple females and their offspring. 
  • Both males and females often disperse from their birth group, with females immediately joining another group and males remaining solitary until they can attract females away from other males.
  • Group cohesion is maintained primarily through strong bonds between adult males and females.
  • Infanticide is a significant cause of infant mortality and is a reproductive strategy used by males to increase their reproductive success.

We are currently undertaking a number of studies using both our long-term databases and new data currently being collected to answer many more questions about gorilla behavior, as well as their biology and many other aspects.

Studying Grauer’s gorillas in Congo

In comparison to mountain gorillas, our knowledge of Grauer’s gorillas ,which are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is much less. Scientists do not even have a good estimate of the number of Grauer’s gorillas left, due to the size and remoteness of their habitat and the difficulties posed by ongoing armed conflict in many areas. They are estimated to number 5,000 or even fewer individuals.  Thus, one of our primary goals is to document the distribution and density of the Grauer’s gorillas, and to learn more about their behavior, diets, social system and other important questions.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has established a Grauer’s gorilla monitoring program in this area, focusing on key gorilla groups and collecting observations of their behavior and ecology, following the successful model provided by Karisoke.


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