Gorillas seem to be very territorial, a new study shows, but they seem to understand ‘ownership’ similarly to humans.
The study is the first one to demonstrate that gorillas are territorial in nature, unlike previous assumptions. At the same time, the findings suggest that these primates can recognise “ownership” of specific regions in a very human-like manner, and will attempt to avoid contact with other groups while travelling close to the centre of neighbouring ranges in order to avoid conflict.
Which seems like the polite thing to do!
My turf, your turf
“Gorillas don’t impose hard boundaries like chimpanzees. Instead, gorilla groups may have regions of priority or even exclusive use close to the centre of their home range, which could feasibly be defended by physical aggression,” says lead author Dr. Robin Morrison, who carried out the study during her PhD at the University of Cambridge
“Our findings indicate that there is an understanding among gorillas of ‘ownership’ of areas and the location of neighbouring groups restricts their movement.”
Because their home ranges often overlap, and because they’re quite peaceful to other gorilla groups, gorillas have long been assumed to be non-territorial. This would make them markedly different from chimpanzees, who have no qualms about using extreme violence to protect their home turf.
The new study, however, suggests that gorillas are, in fact, territorial animals — but they also display quite nuanced behavior around the issue. The study focused on monitoring the movements of the western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. These animals are notoriously difficult to track, so the team placed video cameras at 36 feeding “hotspots” across a 60-square-km area of the park to help them monitor eight different groups of gorillas.
The team reports that the movements of each group are strongly influenced by the location of their neighbours, being less likely to feed at a site visited by another group earlier that day. They would also try to steer clear of the centre of their neighbours’ home range.
“At the same time groups can overlap and even peacefully co-exist in other regions of their ranges. The flexible system of defending and sharing space implies the presence of a complex social structure in gorillas,” explains Dr Morrison.
“Almost all comparative 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,” says co-author Dr Jacob Dunn from the Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).
Dr. Dunn adds that the findings showcases our similarities with the wider primate family, not just with chimpanzees. Observing the way gorillas interact over territory — setting up small, central areas of dominance and wider liminal areas of tolerance of other groups — could help us better understand early human populations. Just like us, he explains, gorillas have the capacity to both violently defend a specific territory and to establish between-group ties that lead to wider social cooperation.
The paper “Western gorilla space use suggests territoriality” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.