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An inside look at gorilla groups in the making

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Written by Stephanie Payne, gorilla keeper

Note from the Editor: It’s time for an update on Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla family. Beginning on Tuesday, April 23, our eight western lowland gorillas will be off public view for a few weeks to accommodate some improvements to their exhibit areas. While you might not be able to see them from the public viewing areas, a lot has been going on behind the scenes. Animal keeper Stephanie Payne brings us up to speed on relationship dynamics within the group and what the future might hold for them.

Uzumma enjoys a snack while surveying the view from above. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Spring is in the air for the gorillas! Whether it’s seeing Vip lying in the sun, Akenji tearing apart the barberry in order to get to their blooms, or Uzumma enjoying the view from the highest perches of the climbing structures in her habitat, it is clear that we’re all enjoying the warmer temperatures and longer days.

Handsome silverback, Kwame, is the leader of his family. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Since new male Kwame’s arrival from Smithsonian’s National Zoo last September, he and females Akenji, Nadiri, Uzumma and Yola, have all meshed into a wonderfully dynamic and mutually respectful group. By mutually respectful, I mean they all respect one another’s role in the group, as well as their own. Kwame’s position as silverback was established soon after his arrival, but it took a few months to see how the females would situate themselves to one another under his leadership. 

The three adult females in Kwame's group—Nadiri, Uzumma and Akenji. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Nothing is ever set in stone with gorilla social groups, but it seems as though Akenji currently holds the title of dominant female, followed closely behind by Uzumma. Dominance over another can be observed by noticing who gets the best seat in the shelter, the best sleeping area in the behind-the-scenes bedrooms, and who has the power to displace whom, wherever they might be. This is a provisional dominance, however, largely predicated by the situation at hand. One’s status in the group may be challenged if the situation calls for it (a highly prized food or enrichment item), but for the most part, everyone prefers to keep the peace, respecting each other’s place in the family. 

The females all have their own way to vie for Kwame's attention. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

While Uzumma and Akenji may boldly vie for Kwame’s attention by following him around the exhibit or staring intensely at him while he’s comfortably lying in the shelter, as though willing him to get up, Nadiri has adopted a different, subtler approach. Nadiri has always been one to avoid conflict, keeping to the perimeter of any group she’s been in, and while this is still the case in Kwame’s group, it is also clear that she enjoys being near Kwame and feels safe in his presence. Occasionally, we will observe her sitting near Kwame in the shelter, but it’s usually in the evening bedrooms that she and Kwame will lie or sit near one another, often touching (as close as it gets to gorilla cuddling). It’s also common to see Nadiri remain seated when Kwame passes closely by, another sign that he is not giving her any cues to move away, and she’s comfortable staying put. Kwame seems to trust Nadiri a bit more than the other females, finding comfort in her passive demeanor. 

Three-year-old Yola is adored by all. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Yola, the youngest of the females, continues to be adored by all; gorillas, visitors and animal care staff alike. She has become Uzumma’s playmate (and occasionally Akenji’s) and they can often be found wrestling and chasing one another throughout their bedrooms, and occasionally in the exhibit shelter. Yola is still growing and learning how to become an adult female gorilla in a family group. She has a strong understanding of all of the individual personalities in her family and interacts appropriately with each member in any given situation. 

Yola takes every chance she can to join the grown-ups in adult gorilla behavior. Delighted for opportunity, she’ll join the females when the occasion arises to correct a wrong they feel Kwame (or whomever else in the group) has committed. These episodes are rare and brief—it usually only takes one chasing lap around the bedrooms before they’ve all forgiven whatever slight may have occurred and are once again content grunting at one another, but it is amusing to see Yola trailing behind the adults, vocalizing her little non-threatening threat grunts (a threat grunt sounds much like a deep cough, and is a vocalization gorillas use to express their displeasure). It’s very rewarding to observe this whole group engaging in so many natural gorilla behaviors both as individuals and as a group.

Is motherhood in Uzumma's future? Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

With Kwame’s group now solidly cohesive, it’s time to take steps towards further enriching their lives and creating an even more dynamic and species-appropriate living situation. What does that mean? For any gorilla group, varying ages of individuals encourages ongoing social development, learning and engagement. With that in mind, we have recently taken Uzumma off birth control (yes, gorilla females can take the same over-the-counter birth control pills that humans do!). While all of our females have breeding recommendations from the gorilla Species Survival Plan, we chose to start with Uzumma due to several factors. First of all, Uzumma’s own mother, Amanda, was very attentive, nurturing and protective of her babies. As with humans, parenting styles can often be learned behaviors. We are hoping infant care will come naturally to Uzumma after her excellent upbringing, and that she in turn can set a good maternal example for partially-keeper-reared Akenji, Nadiri and Yola. Second of all, Uzumma has a LOT of energy. We’re hoping that having an infant will focus some of that energy, giving her an enriching experience and a broader role in the group. Fingers and toes are crossed for quick results and a pregnant Uzumma in the near future.

Vip—father to several females in Kwame's group—is the silverback for Jumoke and Amanda. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

As for Vip, Jumoke and Amanda, their time together in the mornings continues to go well. They’ve returned comfortably to their established roles from their previous time together as a group, with Jumoke remaining the queen bee, Amanda comfortably keeping the peace, and Vip keeping all in check.

Jumoke, mother of Akenji and Nadiri, and grandmother to Yola, is the dominant female in Vip's group. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
At 50, Amanda—Uzumma's mother—is our oldest gorilla. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Currently, Vip, Jumoke and Amanda spend mornings in the East exhibit, each finding their own cozy spot to settle into. Midday, Vip’s group switches places with Kwame’s group, allowing Kwame’s group time in the East exhibit. Vip and Jumoke are given access to multiple indoor bedrooms for the afternoon and Amanda spends the remainder of the day in the West exhibit.

Beginning on Tuesday April 23, the gorillas will be off view for a few weeks in order to accommodate some updates and improvements in both exhibits. The ultimate goal is for both groups to be able to alternate between the two areas, with Vip, Jumoke and Amanda on one side while Kwame’s group spends time in the other. Stay tuned. We’ll let you know as soon as the exhibits reopen. After that, it’s full steam ahead for a busy (and potentially reproductive!) summer season.

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Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for sharing all this, particularly the behind-the-scenes antics. Being able to see happy troops of Western Lowland Gorillas is an extraordinary privilege. I particularly cherish our gorgeous seniors, Vip and Amanda. May they be healthy for many more years.
Anonymous said…
I loved learning more about the interactions of group members. More information about any zoo animal (personality, behavior, health, etc.) is much appreciated.