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Continuing Dian Fossey’s legacy: 50 years of gorilla science

Can we study gorilla personality? How do we know when gorillas are stressed out? Do gorillas have culture? How do you measure a gorilla’s size and growth from a distance?

These are just a few of the latest questions our scientists have studied, and more research is being conducted and published all the time. In fact, nearly more than 275 published scientific papers based on studies originating at our Karisoke Research Center have now been published, and most of what is scientifically known about gorillas is based on work done there over the past 50 years!

Aside from being fascinating and adding to basic scientific knowledge, getting accurate information about gorillas and their ecosystem is crucial to their conservation. This information helps us determine the best methods for protecting them and their critical forest habitats.

This work is also a tribute to the legacy of Dian Fossey, who came to Africa in 1967 at the urging of famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, who hoped that studying primates in the wild would help us better understand ourselves. Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s gorilla habitat, and her groundbreaking studies of gorilla behavior became important not only for the conservation of the species but for greater scientific understanding.

Here are some of the coolest recent studies about the gorillas:

  • Are you my daddy?
    Maybe, but if you’re not the dominant silverback, I may not care…. In gorilla groups that have more than one silverback, our studies suggest that infants prefer to hang out with the more dominant silverback, whether or not he’s the father. 
  • Yes, we gorillas have personality!
    We can be dominant, open, sociable and even more or less agreeable, among other traits! Our expert researchers filled out questionnaires and compared their observations to 50 years of gorilla behavioral data to try and answer this question.
  • How do we measure the size of gorillas remotely?
    Thank goodness we now have high-tech tools that allow us to measure gorillas and their growth rates accurately, from quite a distance away! These are a combination of long-range photography, lasers and distance meters, creating a relatively new technique called “photogrammetry.” Through it, we can measure gorilla growth rates or examine differences in the size of silverbacks and how that might relate to their success.

    Dr. Jordi Galbany
  • How can we measure stress in gorillas?
    The answer is – study lots of poop! Over a period of 18 months, our researchers collected dung samples from 127 mountain gorillas, to show that this non-invasive method of detecting physiological stress in gorillas would work.
  • Do gorillas have culture?
    We think they might – after all, such learned behaviors have already been documented in chimpanzees and orangutans. Scientists compared potential cultural traits from the 50 years of gorilla behavioral data at Karisoke and compared them with data from four other sites in Africa where gorillas are studied. Results? Twenty-three behaviors met the culture criteria, including cupping of hands to fill with water for drinking, and tapping on the head with a hand. But, as is usually the case, more study is needed to delve further into this question.
  • What can gorillas tell us about ourselves?
    Dian Fossey originally established Karisoke to learn more about human evolution by studying one of our closest relatives. Our research is still addressing these important questions, working with other long-term primate field sites to examine what traits are uniquely human and what we share with primate relatives.

There is always more to learn, even after 50 years! We have only now covered a whole generation of gorillas and while we know a lot, we are always excited when new questions arise, because we know looking for answers will be fun, challenging, rewarding and as always, important to their future.

Want to see the full list of published studies from Karisoke and associated scientists? We just posted the latest list on our website, so click here.

Want to help support our scientific studies? Click here to donate to this amazing work.