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Gorilla Moms and Dads: Being Together

As we have all hunkered down together during these times, it is comforting to think about how gorillas live together all the time, spending their days traveling in search of the best plants to eat, resting all together at nap times, building their night nests together, and interacting with other members of the group all day long.

Gorilla mothers have strong and tight bonds with their youngsters, and silverbacks (who are generally the fathers of many of the youngsters in the group) are always there, leading the group, providing protection, and giving attention to all the group members.
In honor of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and families everywhere, here is an inside look at gorilla moms and dads.

Mothers Shishikara and Gutangara with their infants

Gorilla moms are incredible! Gorilla mothers embody all that we know about great maternal care. The love they show for their youngsters is undeniably deep and evident to everyone lucky enough to observe it.

Fossey Fund scientists have studied the maternal-offspring journey through its various stages for more than five decades, documenting the lives of many individuals and whole generations.

We can now reconstruct entire lineages from one matriarch down through five generations! This multi-generational database allows us to answer important questions about gorilla mothers and general reproductive information.

Gorilla females give birth to their first offspring at around 10 years old, at which point they transform entirely into protective mothers who spend all of their time taking care of the newborns. Generally, they give birth to one infant, but a few cases of twins have been observed.

Mother Isaro with her infant.

The weaning period lasts about 3 1/2 years, during which they continue to nurse and share their night nest with the infant. It’s not until after the weaning period that youngsters stop sharing the night nest with their mothers, and the mothers resume their normal reproductive cycles, allowing them to get pregnant again. These years of intense care maximize the chances of the youngsters’ survival.

The first years of life gorilla infants spend their first five to eight months of life entirely depending on the mother’s breast milk. During this phase they are always carried by the mother. At first, she carries the infant under her body, held close to her chest in what is called ventral transport, but when the infant reaches about 3 months of age, the mother transports the infant on her back, so she can be more agile and walk faster with her group. The infant is a bit stronger by this time and can grab onto the mother’s hair for additional security.

At around 7 to 8 months of age, gorilla infants begin to try out solid foods, and a big role that the mother plays is to help infants learn what they need to eat. While formal “teaching,” as we may think of it, has not been documented, infants spend a lot of time scrounging pieces of food dropped by the mother, which certainly helps them learn what is appropriate to eat. Infants also spend a lot of time manipulating leaves and figuring out how to eat them. This actually ends up turning into play most of the time!

Mother Gutangara with her infant

By the time they reach 8 to 9 months of age, infants have improved their eating skills in terms of food-plant selections and manipulation, but they still depend on their mother’s milk as well. It’s not until the infants are about 3 years old that mothers start to wean them, and this stage is not fun for any of them. As the mother begins to discourage nursing, it can be very stressful for her and the infant, with infants frequently throwing temper tantrums just like we can see in human infants. But it’s a necessary step, so that the mother can resume her normal reproductive cycle.

Mother gorillas and infants certainly have an intense bond during the first years, but we also know that the relationship of mothers to their offspring lasts for a lifetime.

In gorilla groups, members of the same matrilineal clan are often seen gathering together. In fact, during her initial years of observation, Dian Fossey used this natural instinct to help figure out which adults might actually be mother and offspring. We have also found that teenage males are much more likely to remain in the group rather than strike out on their own if the mother is still present in the group.

In the five decades of Fossey Fund research, we have identified many matrilineal clans. The largest is the one of matriarch Effie, first seen by Dian Fossey, who admired her strong and intelligent personality. Members of Effie’s clan are now spread throughout the population, including 22 members of her matrilineal family in the groups that we follow, and that’s without counting all the males related to her.

Silverback Kubaha with Infant Masunzu

Over the years we have also observed some remarkable, unique and individual instances of motherly love and concern, including that of mother Pasika traveling alone for eight months to protect her infant; mother Maggie protecting her daughter Gasore after a snare incident; and the mourning by Segasira and brother Urwibutso after their mother, Tuck, died.

Males love their infants, too. It’s all about family! This is possibly the best way to describe the role of a gorilla male as a father. But it’s a bit harder to see this with gorilla fathers, since the role is only fully evident in a larger sense within the group’s dynamics, as the father is generally also the dominant silver-back, or leader of the group, and is responsible for protection of all its members.

Silverbacks do play a very important part in infant development, serving as important role models. It is not unusual to see silverbacks surrounded by all infants in the group and even to see silverbacks play, entertain and help care for individual infants. It’s hilarious to see how gentle these giants become while playing with tiny infants. Silverback Isabukuru was a great example of this, as is his brother Mafunzo, now leader of his own group and often surrounded closely by all the infants.

We also know that silverbacks play an incredibly important role in car-ing for youngsters who became separated from their mothers at early ages. Infants will travel near the silverback and also sleep in his night nest, which is extremely important for maintaining warmth.

This happened with silverback Isabukuru, who had three infants to watch over, and Bwenge, who had two. Remarkably, silverback Kubaha took over this role when Isabukuru died suddenly, continuing to be surrounded by infants day and night.

You can celebrate great mothers and fathers everywhere, while supporting our daily gorilla protection, by joining our adopt-a-gorilla program at gorillafund.org/adopt.

You’ll receive an adoption certificate, profile of your gorilla, a video and more
(all online).