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To Save Gorillas, We’re Studying…Birds

Mountain gorillas live high in the Virunga mountain range in east Africa. Their groups often travel to the highest elevations to seek food and establish territory. It’s cold up there, which is why mountain gorillas have distinctive woolly hair compared to their lowland cousins.

As they forage for food, gorillas help to spread seeds and let in sunlight for plants to grow. We call them the gardeners of the forest.

But gorillas are not the only animals helping to preserve that critical habitat.

A Variable Sunbird (Cinnyris venustus), an important pollinator found at higher elevations. Photo by: Yntze van der Hoek Ph.D.

“Birds play numerous roles in the ecosystems where mountain gorillas live, from the distribution of seeds to the pollination of plants,” says Yntze van der Hoek Ph.D., a biodiversity researcher with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. “We need birds to maintain the forests that gorillas, and all of us, need to survive.”

Birds serve another role in the protection of mountain gorillas, Dr. van der Hoek says. “Birds respond more rapidly than large mammals do to the impacts of climate change. Studying birds helps us flag possible changes in the health of the ecosystems.”

They are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

Deo Tuyisingize, who manages the biodiversity program for the Fossey Fund, initiated the bird studies seven years ago. “It’s important that we monitor the broader biodiversity in the region to understand the health of the forests and ultimately of the gorillas,” he says.

In one study, the Fossey Fund team has been looking for changes in the number of birds at different locations in the park, including at higher elevations.

Rwenzori Turaco  (Ruwenzorornis johnstoni), an Albertine Rift Endemic only found in this part of Africa. We found this species much higher than previously recorded, over 4000 m. Photo by: Yntze van der Hoek Ph.D.

“For ongoing studies, we aim to see if the birds are shifting where they live. As temperatures rise due to climate change, we might see some birds shifting up the mountain, where it is colder. They could do this, understandably, to keep living at relatively comfortable temperatures,” Dr. van der Hoek says.

Initial findings, published this month in the journal Ecology, have been “astonishing.”

“We found that more than 70 bird species occurred way above the elevations where they were supposed to be most common. We actually found some birds at elevations of as much as 1,000 meters, or 3,300 feet, above anything previous records show. That is pretty extreme,” he says.

Fossey Fund biodiversity researchers have a lot more research and analysis to do to better understand what is causing birds’ upward migration. Is it indicative of climate change? Or of established literature that was somehow incomplete?

Dr. van der Hoek says it may be a little of both. “This is difficult to answer without further analyses. Some birds are likely moving up the mountains as a result of climate change. At the same time, we may be increasing our understanding of the distributions and ecologies of these birds. Either way, understanding birds is key to preserving these gorilla habitats that are so critical to the overall health of the planet.”You can read more about the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity work at our website, https://gorillafund.org/category/biodiversity/, and even follow Dr. van der Hoek and the team as they venture into the forest to conduct field research.

Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus), also seen at higher elevations than previously listed. Photo by: Yntze van der Hoek Ph.D.