Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) live in tight-knit groups, foraging, resting and sleeping together around a core home range and a wider peripheral range. These groups sometimes split permanently, separating gorillas that may have lived together for years and may be closely related. A new study, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, shows groups of gorillas that were previously united are more than four times as likely to be friendly to each other when they meet, even if they had split over a decade earlier.
Morrison et al. suggest that mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) show weak territoriality and that, as in humans, this territoriality is sensitive to differences in social relationships. Image credit: Veronica Vecellio.
Gorilla groups are known to actively avoid one another across much of their ranges, spacing themselves in a manner that reduces home range overlap.
However, neighboring gorilla groups are still involved in an average of 15 inter-group encounters annually.
Behavior during these encounters varies considerably, from highly affiliative, with individuals from different groups playing and feeding together, to highly aggressive, involving screaming, biting and pushing.
“Meetings of groups are fairly rare, and at first both groups are usually cautious,” said Dr. Robin Morrison, a researcher at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter.
“They often beat their chests and show off their strength, but the interaction can then either become aggressive — with fighting and screaming — or affiliative.”
“In affiliative interactions, the initial tension passes and the groups intermingle. They may rest together, and younger gorillas will often play with youngsters from the other group.”
Humans have an unrivalled capacity for cooperation based on the friendships that extend beyond our immediate group, and one theory for the evolutionary benefit of these wider friendships is that they allow shared access to space and resources with a reduced risk of aggression.
The new study is the first to test this theory beyond humans — and the findings suggest gorillas may indeed benefit in this way from maintaining ‘friendships’ between groups.
“The pattern we found mirrors what we see in humans,” Dr. Morrison said.
“We also have concepts of public spaces outside our ‘range’ where we tolerate anyone, spaces like our homes where we tolerate certain individuals, and private spaces within those homes reserved for close family or just ourselves.”
Understanding these patterns is also important for conservation.
“Mountain gorillas have less than 800 km2 of habitat remaining,” said Jean Paul Hirwa, Gorilla Program Manager at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
“As a result of extreme conservation efforts, the population has been growing over the last 30 years while their habitat has not.”
“Understanding how groups interact and share their limited space is important for estimating future population dynamics and trends in this endangered species.”
Robin E. Morrison et al. Inter-group relationships influence territorial defence in mountain gorillas. Journal of Animal Ecology, published online October 27, 2020; doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13355