Sunday 16 June 2013

Are you more Gorilla than Chimpanzee? Trekking the Gorilla in Africa.

The name Gorilla comes from Greek Γόριλλαι (Gorillai), meaning "tribe of hairy women" and they are in fact the closest living relatives to us after the bonobo and chimpanzee.
Drawing of French explorer Paul du Chaillu at close quarters with a gorilla 1856
 At the very end of our six week expedition to Africa at the end of the year we will be trekking into the mountains of either Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo to find one of the mountain gorilla families living there. As gorillas don’t respect borders they could be in any one of these three bordering countries, the only countries where the mountain gorilla is found. Gorillas move in search of food at the command of the silverback leader. This might be a short distance each day or several miles depending on how food availability is. They never sleep in the same place two nights in a row!
If we are lucky we will have a short trek into the forest from our camp, but if they have moved a great distance overnight we will be in for an 8 hour trek through ‘the impenetrable forest’ – I’m gathering it’s called that for a reason! Each trek is not on lovely, premade tracks but forged through the forest with machetes as spiky thorns tear thru clothing. Tucking trousers into socks helps prevent ant swarms from scurrying up your legs to bite you and solid hiking boots or gumboots beat the torrential downpours that create mud deep enough to suck your shoes off.
These are the Gorilla beringei gorillas Dian Fossey studied for 18 years from 1966-85, having originally been sent out there by Louis Leakey and National Geographic. (If you’ve seen the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ you’ll know who I’m talking about). Along with JaneGoodall and Birutė Galdikas, she was part of  Leakey'sAngels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.
Louis Leakey, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey & Birute Galdikas
The Mountain Gorillas are a critically endangered species. There are only about 786 mountain gorillas left in the world. They cannot survive outside their natural habitat, which is why you won’t them in a zoo. Any gorilla you might see in a zoo will be a lowland gorilla, a different species altogether. This why we trek to see them. Trekking them is expensive, up to $1000 for permits and visas depending which country you have to trek into, but this helps to keep visitor number down to only those really serious about this. In any case only 10 gorilla per day per family (there are 5 families) are available. 100% of the money is channelled back into mountain gorilla conservation and also benefits the communities that live near the mountain gorilla homing ranges. This goes a long way in preventing human-wildlife conflict.

One of things that is so adorable about these gentle creatures is that the Silverbacks, the mature males, are very kind hearted and will even care for orphaned offspring on their own.
A gorilla family is categorised in this way: Infant – 0 to 3 years; Juvenile 3 to 5 years; Sub-adult 5 to about 9 years; Adult female – About 9+ years depending on when she starts her menses. Blackback 9 to12 years. Silverback 12+ years, depending on when the male develops a spray of silver on his back marking him as mature enough to head a family.
Females usually conceive at around 8 to 9 years with their first baby being born before age 10. It is remarkable how similar they are to us. The menstrual cycle is 28 days and pregnancy lasts 8 and-a-half months. Infants are weaned at about 2 years, but will ‘comfort suckle’ as long as their mother lets them, or until she gives birth again - usually after around 3 to 4 years.
In fact, when I wrote about the bonobos, I said that they were the only other species to have face-to-face sex, however recently, gorillas have been observed engaging in face-to-face sex.
Every gorilla has a unique fingerprint just like humans as well as a unique nose print. Gorillas are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals in the world. They are able to process information and to think independently. Recently a female gorilla in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park was recorded using a stick as if to gauge the depth of water whilst crossing a swamp. They share with us a full range of emotions: love, hate, fear, grief, joy, greed, generosity, pride, shame, empathy, and jealousy. They laugh when they are tickled and cry (with sound, not tears) when they are sad or hurt. They have also been known to show cultural differences in different areas, particularly in different methods of food preparation.
One thing I wanted to know was do gorillas see colour as we do? The answer is yes! Along with the other ‘Old world species’ chimpanzees and orang-utans, gorillas have trichromatic (three-colour) vision like us. They even show individual colour preferences!  New World monkeys vary. The howler monkey, for example, is trichromatic. The owl monkey is monochromatic, seeing only in black and white. Among tamarins and spider monkeys, all males are dichromats—they can't perceive reds or greens. But females split 60-40 between three- and two-color vision.
Andrew Smith, a primatologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, has been working for nearly a decade with collegues in the Peruvian Amazon to study how different types of sight affected the foraging behavior of New World monkeys called tamarins.
"You can have six individuals from the same species, even the same family, who see the world in six different ways," Smith said.
Like the one in 12 men who are colour blind, many New World monkeys have trouble discriminating between red and green, which can hamper the animals' ability to tell ripe fruit from raw. Orange for example, is a hard colour to detect without red-green perception.
Some forms of dichromacy mean less sensitivity to light, making the world appear dimmer. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of this? Well, it would appear that if you’re not as distracted by colour (leave the gathering to the more colour astute women) you might be better at seeing shapes and forms – essential when hunting prey. New World monkeys consume large quantities of prey—katydids, frogs, and lizards.
I was fascinated to learn that like me and my offspring, all gorillas share the same blood type (B). Chimpanzees on the other all have blood type (A). Some evolutionary scientists believe the gorilla to be the ancestor of Neanderthal man. Interestingly, as I was researching evolutionary genetics I stumbled across a study by Boren et al. (1993), in which a bacterium casing gastric disorders was linked to blood type (O).  The researchers found there to be less receptors for the bacterium in blood types A and B, thus people with blood type O were more susceptible. If you suffer from tummy upsets or ulcers are you blood type (O)?
Here is an interesting evolutionary chart comparing chimpanzee with gorilla evolutionary descent. Can you relate more to one than the other?

Sunday 2 June 2013

Life Apeing Art - King Kong and Dian Fossey's Gorillas

The tribes of the Omo Valley may measure their time by Omo-clock, a string with knots tied to indicate the number of sunsets before a gathering or ceremony, but last night we were measuring time by gorilla moments. Down in Melbourne for an Emergency Medicine conference, we took the opportunity to rendezvous at the Regent theatre with some great friends we’d made traipsing around Vietnam earlier in the year at the preview showing of the much anticipated production of King Kong.
The star of the show an incredible roboticised ’40-foot’ gorilla manipulated by a dozen black ninja clad puppeteers. Kongs facial expressions were stunningly realistic and I was happy to note the sniffing, grunting and roaring sounds emanating from him were more reminiscent of Dian Fosseys’ Digit than the manipulated recordings of zoo lion roars used in the original ’33 film. Maximum kudos however goes to the special effects costuming of the voodoo natives of Skull Island – incredible shimmering vibrating costumes that actually made me wonder whether they were real or holographic projections. I’m assuming they were made with LED lights inside the costumes but whatever the construct it was mind altering – no drugs needed!
 Except for the rather abrupt ending that failed to ring the final tear from the entire house that it potentially could of (though as usual Occy was NOT dry-eyed), the story line of the show stuck  fairly well to the original 1933 film script and even honoured the original ‘pre-code’ style of the original film.  Pre-Code Hollywood is that time in film history between sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the ‘Code’ (censorship guidelines) to films after 1934. If you think Pulp Fiction was a sign of ‘the degeneration of film’ into violence, illicit drug use and profanity you can think again. Films made during the pre-code time were characterised by violence, illicit drug use, profanity, promiscuity, sexual innuendo, prostitution, abortion and homosexuality. (Surprisingly strong women dominated films in this pre women's lib era). After the ‘Code’ many scenes were deleted and the film re-released. These scenes included
  • A Brontosaurus eating crewmen in the water, chasing one up a tree and eating him (which is inaccurate since it is a herbivorous dinosaur);
  • Kong undressing Ann Darrow and sniffing his fingers;
  • Kong biting and stepping on natives when he attacks the village;
  • Kong biting a reporter in New York;
  • Kong mistaking a sleeping woman for Ann and dropping her to her death after realising his mistake.
Some of these were faithfully put back into the theatre production, most notably Kong dropping the woman he mistakes for Ann with a squishy ‘splat’.  Hopefully the only ‘splatting’ that will be going on when we trek to see the real life characters in  life ‘apeing’ art in the form of Dian Fosseys’ gorillas at the end of the year in deepest, darkest Africa will be those pesky Tsetse flies. I will think of the King Kong production in Melbourne and reflect on the real life love affair of one woman for a gorilla.