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Silverback gorilla shows surprising moves

This article is part of a series presented by the Fossey Fund’s gorilla program Senior Advisor Veronica Vecellio, focusing on the mountain gorillas the Fossey Fund protects and studies every day in Rwanda. Veronica has worked with these gorilla families for nearly 20 years and shares her deep knowledge and insights about their lives.

All kinds of questions about gorilla behavior can arise when we witness unexpected events among them that don’t follow what we normally observe. One case is the formation of a group by silverback Dushishoze. This is one of the mountain gorilla groups the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund protects and monitors every day in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Mountain gorilla Dushishoze sitting in tall grass

Silverback Dushishoze formed his own group in an unusual way

Dushishoze was born and raised in the historic Pablo group and made a surprising move by leaving his family to create his own group at the young age of 17. Leaving the birth group is a common strategy among gorilla males aiming to form their own family and pass on their genes to the next generation. This can happen sooner or later as they become mature. Males who emigrate alone often take years to form a family, if ever. In contrast, those who depart with females can put their plan into action immediately, but it requires alliances and bonding made prior to the split.

Dushishoze, on the other hand, made moves that didn’t fit a common pattern, as he gathered an unusual mix of members to his group. One was an elderly female (Mukecuru), two are females with young infants (meaning they were not available for mating), and three are males. So the goal of reproducing did not seem to be Dushishoze’s immediate concern.

This led to an unusually calm dynamic for a newly formed family. Normally, in such cases, newly dominant males would immediately mate with females. But that didn’t happen in this new group. For several months, the group seemed more focused on bonding and appeared content with their status.

Dushishoze worked well in his role as the group’s leader, guiding them to a different ranging area than the one his former group occupied. The younger males were supportive and also spent time with the infants. Mukecuru maintained her grandmotherly role, forming strong and comforting bonds, especially with her grandson, Isooko.

Mother-daughter duo raise infants together!

One unique aspect of the group is the relationship between the two females with infants – Gutangara and Shishikara – because they are also mother and daughter. Their two infants, Inararibonye and Kira, are growing up as if they were siblings, thanks to the support of family members. And the strong bond of the mothers allowed them to return to their reproductive status sooner than usual.

Mountain gorilla Dushishoze group resting in tall grass

Dushishoze’s group is now thriving, with the recent arrival of two infants

As a result, Dushishoze finally became a father a year and a half after forming the group. Not only that, but Gutangara and Shishikara gave birth within weeks of each other, providing them yet another opportunity to raise infants together.

Unfortunately, this happiness was briefly interrupted by the passing of the elderly Mukecuru at the age of 43 in April of this year. Isooko and the other group members visibly mourned her loss, making vocalizations in search of her.

Still, the family remains as cohesive as ever. Dushishoze is doing well in his role as a father and guide for his family, proving that the decision to form his own group two years ago was a good one. If he had waited longer, he might have risked other males taking the opportunity. 

The decision of Gutangara and Shishikara‘s to join Dushishoze also seemed unusual at the time, considering the high rank they had in the Pablo group and that they were both raising very young infants, but that choice has also worked out well. Now, they can count on a strong young silverback and the help of other caring males in their new group.

With the birth of her latest infant, Gutangara also achieved remarkable success as the most prolific female ever monitored, with eight offspring, three of whom are parents themselves. This gives Dushishoze and his group a promising outlook for a bright and prosperous future.