Gorillas are territorial and claim 'ownership' of their home ranges

Gorillas are territorial and claim ‘ownership’ of their home ranges while peacefully co-existing with their neighbours – just like humans

  • Gorillas claim ownership of specific ‘private’ areas that can be easily defended
  • They aren’t as aggressively territorial as chimpanzees but do protect their range 
  • These findings contradict long-held views gorillas are non-territorial primates

Gorillas are territorial and claim ‘ownership’ of their home ranges while peacefully co-existing with their neighbours, a into their behaviour study finds.

Evolutionary biologists from Anglia Ruskin University studied eight western lowland gorilla groups to find out how they react to incursions in their territory. 

The animals co-exist with their neighbouring groups while also claiming ‘exclusive use’ of the areas close to the central hub of their homes.

The researchers said the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, contradict widely-held belief that these primates were non-territorial. 

Lead author Dr Robin Morrison said the behaviour of the gorillas is similar to humans and provides some insight into the social evolution of early human populations.

A group of western lowland gorillas were monitored at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo and researchers found they co-existed with neighbours while also defending their ‘home ranges’

Dr Robin Morrison, lead author on the study installed cameras around the gorilla habitat to monitor them remotely and get an idea of how they interact with their neighbours

Scientists monitored the movements of 113 gorillas at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo, with cameras across 36 feeding spots

The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the social structures of gorillas are more complex than previously thought, as interactions between groups are influenced by social and familial relationships and territoriality. 

‘This new research changes what we know about how groups of gorillas interact and has implications for what we understand about human evolution,’ said study author Dr Jacob Dunn.

‘Almost all research into human evolution compares us to chimpanzees, with the extreme territorial violence observed in chimpanzees used as evidence that their behaviour provides an evolutionary basis for warfare among humans,’ he said. 

‘Our research broadens this out and shows instead just how closely we compare to our next nearest relatives.’

Gorillas’ core areas of dominance and large zones of mutual tolerance could help with our understanding of the social evolution of early human populations.

He said it shows both the capacity for violence in defending a specific territory and the between-group affiliations necessary for wider social cooperation.

Scientists monitored the movements of 113 gorillas at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo, with cameras across 36 feeding spots. 

The team found the gorillas’ movements were strongly influenced by the location of their neighbours, suggesting these animals may avoid the central hubs of other groups’ home ranges to prevent conflict. 

Gorillas’ core areas of dominance and large zones of mutual tolerance could help with our understanding of the social evolution of early human populations

The animals co-exist with their neighbouring groups while also claiming ‘exclusive use’ of the areas close to the central hub of their homes

Study finds gorillas are territorial and claim ‘ownership’ of home ranges while also peacefully co-existing with their neighbours in a similar way to humans

The authors said this behaviour is markedly different to chimpanzees, which display extreme territorial-based violence. 

Morrison, who carried out the study during her PhD at the University of Cambridge, said the findings show an understanding among gorillas of the idea of ‘ownership’ of areas and where neighbours reside.

Gorillas don’t impose hard boundaries like chimpanzees, she said.

‘Instead, gorilla groups may have regions of priority or even exclusive use close to the centre of their home range, which could be defended by physical aggression. 

‘At the same time groups can overlap and even peacefully co-exist in other regions of their ranges,’ Morrison confirmed.

‘The flexible system of defending and sharing space implies the presence of a complex social structure in gorillas.’

The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

HOW MANY WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLAS ARE LEFT IN THE WILD? 

The exact number of animals left is not known because they inhabit some of the densest and remote rainforests in Africa.

However, recent estimates have shown that as few as 360,000 remain across their range. 

In addition, scientists predict gorilla numbers have declined by more than 60 per cent over the last 20 to 25 years. 

Bristol Zoological Society participates in a conservation breeding programme for western lowland gorillas, which is vitally important to the survival of this critically endangered species. 

A family group of seven western lowland gorillas live at Bristol Zoo Gardens, and two baby gorillas have been born there since 2016.

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