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What to expect when expecting a baby gorilla: Akenji edition!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Akenji is expecting her first baby soon! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Recently, we shared with you that Akenji, one of our female western lowland gorillas who will be 23 years old in July, is pregnant with her first baby With a birth just weeks away now—expected by the end of June or early July—we are thrilled to share for the first time, stunning ultrasound video images and stills of the little gorilla baby that will soon be joining Akenji’s extended gorilla family. 

The ultrasound procedure was overseen by Woodland Park Zoo associate veterinarian Dr. Yousuf Jafarey, and the images from it are just amazing! We can see a little hand (in a sort of “fist-bump” pose), ribs, a beating heart and some general wiggling around.

Dr. Yousuf Jafarey, our associate veterinarian who oversaw the successful ultrasound procedure, tells us it's OK to interpret the above image as Akenji's baby giving us a fist-bump!

The father is experienced silverback dad, Kwame, who fathered son Kitoko, born to mom Uzumma in March 2020, and daughter Zuna, born to mom Nadiri in January 2021. As big and “serious” as a silverback can be, Kwame is also known for enjoying play sessions with his kids, so we’re excited that Akenji’s baby will soon be born into a bustling, multi-generational family with plenty of built-in playmates of all ages!

We recently got a chance to check in with long-time animal keepers Judy and Stephanie who were kind enough to answer some of the questions we’ve heard from guests about what to expect when expecting a baby gorilla!

Q: How is Akenji doing?

A: Akenji is doing really well! She sometimes seems a bit more tired than usual and will bed down in her nest in the evenings before the other gorillas in her group have settled and called it a day—but she is eating normally and generally doing well!

Akenji is doing very well! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Q: Since this will be her first baby, how are we helping to make sure that Akenji is ready for motherhood?

A: Akenji was born here at Woodland Park Zoo in 2001 to a female who didn’t show the appropriate maternal behaviors after giving birth, but another experienced mom in the group did—and by the time Akenji was 6 months old, she was sleeping with her surrogate mother. She is a very smart, adaptable and confident gorilla; and she has been able to learn by watching Nadiri and Uzumma with their babies, too.

In the past, Akenji hadn’t shown much interest in the babies that were born into her group but that changed with Zuna, who is now 3 years old. In the fall of 2022, we started seeing Akenji carrying Zuna on her back, sitting close to her and just generally showing patient and gentle interest in her. Whether this was related to any differing social circumstances or a change in her perspective about babies is unclear, but Zuna was the first baby to ever elicit these maternal behaviors in Akenji, and she and Zuna continue to have a close relationship. We believe all these experiences have helped prepare Akenji to have her own baby.

This pic, from last year, shows Akenji carrying Zuna on her back with Yola on the left and Kitoko on the right. Photo: Gorilla "Keeper Cam"/Woodland Park Zoo

Even so, we want to be prepared in case Akenji needs any help. We’ve been training with her since we learned she was pregnant—working on behaviors that will help her confidently pick up and properly hold her baby. We also want her to understand how to bring things to us—to the mesh barrier—when we ask. This will help if we need her to bring her infant closer to us for supplemental feedings.

We also worked with Akenji on the behaviors that allowed us to get the amazing ultrasound images you're seeing here. She voluntarily participates in all this training, allowing us to apply the ultrasound probe on her belly to check the baby’s development. This level of cooperation tells us she is comfortable with us and the bond of trust we’ve built with her is solid.

Q: What are some of the similarities and differences between human and gorilla pregnancies? Do pregnant gorillas experience things like morning sickness or cravings and aversions to certain foods?

A: The average gorilla gestation is about 252 days, which is a little more than 8 months. When Nadiri was pregnant with Yola (her older daughter who is now 8) she showed behaviors that indicated she was experiencing morning sickness. She had definite food preferences and aversions and sometimes wasn’t interested in eating at all. We had to cook some of her veggies to make them more palatable for her. Her second pregnancy with Zuna was different and didn’t include any signs of morning sickness.

Luckily, Akenji hasn’t really shown any signs of nausea or strong food aversions during her pregnancy—although she does seem more thirsty and is not as interested in her peas or green beans at mealtime.

Luckily, Akenji has not shown any signs or morning sickness. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Q: You’ve been able to witness several gorilla births here. What is that like? Is the birthing process similar to what human mothers might experience?

A: Yes and no—and each of our gorilla births is special! Once we get into the birth window, which will begin mid-June, we will arrange for 24/7 observation of Akenji, both in person and via “den cams” that allow us to see into the gorillas’ behind-the-scenes bedroom areas. Signs of labor might include being fidgety like she can’t get comfortable, seeing her move around a lot and lying or sitting in positions that are unusual for her. We look for behaviors that are, for her, atypical. Nadiri buried herself in hay up to her neck during labor with Yola, which was very unusual for her.

Once labor starts, it can progress quickly and typically doesn’t last more than a few hours. A gorilla infant usually weighs 4-5 pounds and its head is smaller than that of a human baby. For context, a female adult gorilla on average weighs between 180-220 pounds—making for an easier delivery of a 4-5 pound infant.

One interesting fact is that gorillas are born without any fontanelle. Fontanelle—otherwise known as “soft spots” on a baby’s head—are spaces between the cranial plates of the skull where bone formation isn't complete yet. These spaces allow a human baby’s head to change shape as needed to facilitate movement through the birth canal, and they usually “harden up” and become filled in with solid bone by the time a baby is about 18 months old. This isn’t the case for gorilla babies. They do not have these soft spots or spaces between their cranial plates; the plates can move and overlap, allowing the head to change shape during birth as necessary. But once the baby is born the bones move into place within days, making them sturdy and ready to be carried (and occasionally bumped around) right away. It’s a fabulous adaptation that allows wild gorilla babies to survive and thrive in an outdoor, forest and jungle environment.

In this pic from 2020, Uzumma nurses Kitoko when he was days old.  Gorilla moms typically hold their young babies 24/7. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Q: What will you and our veterinary staff be looking for in the first 24 to 72 hours after the baby is born—and why is that period so critical?

A: We will watch continually until we see the infant regularly nursing, urinating and defecating. This will show us that Akenji is holding the baby properly and allowing it to latch onto the nipple. We will want to see that the baby appears strong, gripping onto Akenji’s hair with its hands and feet and rooting around to nurse.

If all goes well, as we expect it to, our veterinary staff will only perform a visual exam while Akenji holds her baby. We would not have any immediate hands-on contact unless it was medically needed. We will probably be able to determine the sex of the baby during the first day or two because as we watch Akenji very closely, we will (hopefully) have a chance to see her clean and examine her baby. Gorilla mothers are very attentive at looking over their babies!

Q: What about the rest of the group? How do we expect that Akenji having a baby will affect everyone?

A: After Akenji has her baby and settles a little, she may stay close to Kwame. He will “keep the peace” and will keep anyone that bothers her at bay. One of the ways a silverback can help a new mother may not initially sound very “helpful,” but it is. Males typically do not like to hear a fussing baby—and for good reason. Gorilla infants can vocalize loudly when they’re hungry or uncomfortable (and it's very different from the sounds a human baby makes) but they rarely do, as gorilla moms typically hold their young babies 24/7. So, if/when they do cry, it is a signal that something “isn’t quite right” and the baby’s needs are not being met. When males get irritated by a fussy baby, it serves as a good (and needed) prompt to a new mother that she needs to tend to her baby, which will quiet its fussing immediately. Gorilla babies are totally dependent on their mothers and will typically need to nurse every two to three hours for the first few months.

Kitoko and Zuna, seen here participating in "gorilla shenanigans", will soon have a new playmate! Photo: Annie Kwan/Woodland Park Zoo

The “wild cards” in this scenario may just be our current youngsters, Zuna and Kitoko. Young females like Zuna can learn a lot of future mothering skills by watching mothers and babies. Zuna is a very savvy youngster, and we hope she will sit quietly near Akenji and her baby. It’s no surprise that young males, like 4-year-old Kitoko, can be a little more rambunctious. We expect that Kwame, Akenji, and the other females will make it clear to him that he needs to hold back on the “rough-and-tumble" behavior around the new baby—at least for a while.

Q: If everything goes smoothly how soon would our guests be able to see Akenji and her new baby together with the rest of their family group? What could they expect to see?

A: Hopefully it will be within a week or two after the baby is born since summer is coming, but it will really depend on the weather. We obviously want to make sure the temperatures are mild enough to be comfortable for a new baby.

Babies are so enriching for the whole gorilla family. Everyone in the group will be aware of and interested in the new family member. Gorilla babies, like some human babies, are ticklish under the neck and arms and along their rib cages, so you could see Akenji (or some of the others) offering some tickles.

Every gorilla mother is different. Some keep their babies close at all times and others allow them some freedom to move around on their own, but as the baby gains coordination and strength, we expect Akenji will let the others, including Zuna and Kitoko, play with it—so long as they are gentle. Over the next year, once the baby is able to toddle around a bit and has more muscle coordination, we expect to see some epic wrestling sessions. Again, this will depend on whether Akenji and the other adults approve. But sometimes they even join in on the play sessions—especially dad Kwame!

Experienced father Kwame, seen here playing with daughter Zuna in 2022, loves interacting with his kids. Akenji's baby will be his third with his group of females. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

There is a lot of excitement to come over the next few months. We will certainly let everyone know when Akenji has her baby and we are all excited to see what type of mom Akenji will become. Plus, we’ll give you updates on the whole family and on Nadaya’s group too. Nadaya is the other silverback male who lives on the other side of the exhibit with his three females. Stay tuned!


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A portion of every visit and membership to Woodland Park Zoo supports saving wildlife in the Pacific Northwest and around the world including protecting western lowland gorillas. The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project aims to preserve wildlife in the Congo Basin by studying gorillas and chimpanzees, the ecosystems and the forces that threaten their survival. Local communities and indigenous people assist in directly addressing the challenges that impact great ape survival in this region.

Join the zoo by recycling old cell phones and other used handheld electronics through ECO-CELL to help preserve gorilla habitat. ECO-CELL operates a strict NO LANDFILL program and reimburses organizations for recyclable contributions. The community can bring used handheld electronics to drop-boxes located at both zoo entrances.

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Anonymous said…
nice article !