A Glimpse into the daily and social life of a mountain gorilla family
Much like their human counterparts, mountain gorillas lead complex lives full of interesting family bonds, leadership struggles, and heartwarming moments. In the misty tropical forests of East Africa where they live, a family of gorillas is led by a dominant silverback who nurtures relationships among his females and offspring while guiding important decisions. Gorilla trekking adventures provide an intimate glimpse into these fascinating creatures’ complex social structures, unique daily rituals, and intriguing communication methods.
This article showcases how a mountain gorilla family in the jungles of East Africa navigates its natural habitat, from its intricate social rituals to its foraging habits and parental care. We will delve into the daily lives of a mountain gorilla family, highlighting their unique social structure and behaviors.
Social structure of a mountain gorilla family
Mountain gorillas live in family groups called troops. Typically, a troop consists of one adult male, known as a silverback, several adult females, and their offspring. Sometimes, there may be more than one adult male in a group. A silverback is a male gorilla at least 14 years old and is identified by the patch of silver hair on its back, which appears as it ages. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth that grow as they mature.
Both male and female gorillas often leave their original family group when they reach maturity. In mountain gorilla families, females are more likely to leave their birth family than males. When male gorillas mature, they may leave their family to form their own troop, attracting females who are also looking for a new home. However, some male mountain gorillas choose to stay with their original family and become second-in-command to the silverback. If the silverback passes away, these males might take charge or mate with the females.
The silverback – the head of the family
In a mountain gorilla family with only one adult male, if the silverback dies, the females and their offspring must find a new group to join because the new leader may harm them. Without the protection of their silverback father, the offspring are at risk, so joining a new group is a way to stay safe.
The silverback is the leader of the gorilla group, making all the decisions, helping settle arguments, deciding where the group goes, leading them to find food, and ensuring everyone is safe and well. Younger male gorillas, called blackbacks, between 8 and 12 years old, support the silverback. They do not have the silver hair on their back like the older silverbacks, but they play a crucial role in protecting the group.
Family social bonding
The bond between the silverback and the females is essential for the stability of the family. They maintain their relationships by grooming each other and staying close. Females form strong connections with males for mating opportunities and protection.
Male gorillas generally have weaker social bonds, especially in families with more than one male, where there is a lot of competition for mates. However, in all-male groups, they often get along well, playing, grooming, and spending time together. Occasionally, they might even engage in homosexual interactions.
Severe fighting is rare in stable groups, but when two mountain gorilla groups meet, the silverbacks may fight fiercely, using their large canine teeth to cause injuries. While mountain gorillas can sometimes be aggressive, especially between males and females, serious injuries are infrequent. Female gorillas who are related tend to be friendly, but others may act aggressively toward each other. Females may fight for attention from males, and sometimes, a male gorilla might step in to stop the fight.
Reproduction and Parenting in a Mountain Gorilla Family
In a mountain gorilla family, female gorillas mature at around 10 to 12 years old, while the males mature at about 11 to 13 years old. A female gorilla goes through her first menstrual cycle when she is six years old, but she cannot have babies for the next two years. They usually have their first baby when they are 10 years old. The time between each birth for a female gorilla is about four years. Male gorillas can have babies even before they are fully grown. Mountain gorillas can mate any time of the year.
When female gorillas want to mate, they show signs by approaching the males slowly while making eye contact. They might reach out or tap the ground to get the male’s attention. Sometimes, females discretely mate with multiple males in the same family. Male gorillas let females know they are interested in mating by getting close to them and making certain sounds or movements. Gorillas have been seen having face-to-face mating, once considered unique to humans and bonobos.
Gorilla babies in a family need a lot of care and rely on their mothers to keep them safe. While male gorillas do not help much with the babies, they do spend time teaching them to socialize and bond. The silverback, the head of the family, looks out for the babies and protects them from any trouble within the group. Babies stick close to their mothers for the first few months, sleeping in the same nest and nursing often.
As gorilla babies grow older, they start spending short periods away from their mothers. Around one year old, they might move a bit farther, and by 18 to 21 months, they spend more time apart from their mothers. They also nurse less frequently. When they are about three years old, they enter a phase called the juvenile period and stop nursing. After this, the females can have babies again. The presence of other playmates in the family, including the silverback, helps reduce any conflicts between mothers and their growing babies.
Communication within the mountain gorilla family
Communication among mountain gorillas is quite fascinating. They have around twenty-five different ways of talking to each other, and they use many of these sounds when moving in thick vegetation. You’ll often hear grunts and barks while they’re on the move, helping the family members know where everyone is. They usually use these sounds when they need to sort out things among themselves, like when they need to discipline someone.
When there’s danger or something to be cautious about, especially when the silverback (the big leader) is involved, you might hear screams and roars. On the flip side, deep and rumbling belches are like signs of happiness and contentment. You’ll often hear these on a gorilla trekking expedition when they’re eating or taking a break. It’s their way of chatting within the group.
Mountain gorillas are pretty good at avoiding physical fights in a family. They usually resolve family conflicts by doing things that look threatening but don’t actually hurt anyone. They have this unique thing called a “ritualized charge display.” It’s like a performance with nine steps, including making loud noises, pretending to eat, standing on two legs, throwing stuff, beating their chests, and even slapping the ground. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, I’m big and strong; let’s not fight.”
Chest-beating, a typical gorilla behavior, also varies in how fast or slow they do it, depending on their size. The males tend to do it more when they want to tell the females in the family that they are ready to make babies. Basically, in gorilla language, it’s like they’re saying, “I’m strong and ready to be a dad!”
The gorilla family diet and how they forage
A mountain gorilla family has a daily routine that includes rest, travel, and feeding. Their diet is mainly plant parts like leaves, stems, and shoots, with only a tiny portion of their diet coming from fruits. Luckily, there’s plenty of food for everyone in the family, so they don’t have to compete for food in the tropical mountain jungles of East Africa. They can live in different places and eat various things.
Since fruits are not always easy to find, the mountain gorilla family has to travel more to find fruits. Mountain gorillas also eat insects like ants and termites and use tools like sticks to extract them from their hives.
Surprisingly, gorillas don’t drink much water because their food, like juicy plants, already has a lot of water. Even though it’s rare, there have been times when mountain gorillas were seen drinking water.
Nesting – how the gorilla family spends their night.
Mountain gorillas have a unique way of spending their nights. They create their own beds in the form of nests using branches and leaves. The nests usually measure between 2 to 5 feet wide, and each gorilla makes its own. The silverback typically chooses a spot where he can keep an eye on all family members.
Unlike chimpanzees and orangutans, gorillas prefer to sleep on the ground instead of in tree branches. When gorilla babies are very young, they sleep with their moms. But as they grow older (around three years old), they start making their own nests, usually close to where their moms sleep.
Interestingly, gorillas do not follow a set pattern for building their nightly nests. They use different places, trees, and materials opportunistically. Scientists believe that the gorillas’ nest-building is a form of tool use. They create a new nest every night, even if the family stays in the same place. They usually start making their nests about an hour before it gets dark so that they are ready for a good night’s sleep when it gets dark.
According to Gorilla Fund, gorillas sleep a lot—about 12 hours every day.
Habitat – where mountain gorillas live
Mountain gorillas live in East African mountain forests between 2,400 and 4,000 m (8,000 and 13,000 feet) above sea level. The mountain gorilla’s natural habitat is the lush and misty montane forests that blanket the volcanic slopes of East-Central Africa. These ecosystems are not only vital to the gorillas but also to a myriad of other species that call these dense jungles home.
Mountain gorillas live in two populations whose sanctuary has been separated by human settlement. One population occupies the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. The other population roams on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains, protected in three national parks: Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Virunga National Park in DRC, and Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda.
Unfortunately, habitat loss and human encroachment pose significant threats to these creatures, underscoring the importance of conservation efforts to ensure their survival.