Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.
Where the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo meets and separates into the nations of Rwanda and Burundi, a dense rainforest flourishes, rich with some of the most biologically diverse species on the planet. In this lush jungle is found one of Africa’s most magnificent and essential species. The mountain gorilla is known as an “umbrella species,” helping protect their habitat and the variety of life that thrives there.
There are two species of gorillas, the western gorillas and the eastern gorillas. The subspecies of the west include the and Cross River gorilla, whereas the east contains the and the mountain gorilla. Mountain gorillas are most notable for their fur, which is thicker and longer than that of other gorilla species which enables them to live the colder mountain temperatures that often drop below freezing. Despite being smaller than their eastern lowland gorilla cousins, mountain gorillas can grow to astonishing heights. The largest ever recorded was a 1.83 m (6 ft) tall male, weighing 267 kg (589 lb).
To achieve this massive size, mountain gorillas are diurnal, spending most of the day eating. On average, adult males eat 18.8 kilograms (41 lb) of food a day, while females consume 14.9 kilograms (33 lb). It is with this diet of leaves, shoots, stems, bark, roots, flowers, and fruit that mountain gorillas help spread and plant seeds across the forest floor with their droppings. Also, with their large body movements and picking of vegetation, they help prune the forest allowing new seedlings to bloom.
The conservation and study of mountain gorillas provide insight as their behavior is so akin to humans that it is evidence of our role as a part of nature, not separate. Foraging begins early in the morning as the sun rises, but if it’s cold and overcast, these gorillas often stay longer in their nest, cuddled together. Around midday and then again in the evening, mountain gorillas take time to rest from their daily work to establish and reinforce relationships within their group by grooming and playing. Twenty-five distinct vocalizations have been recognized by researchers, but a language of grunts, barks, yells, and deep rumblings is clearly known by the gorilla group. Like humans, mountain gorillas also appear to be afraid of certain reptiles and insects, some have also been observed fearing water and storms.
Even as mountains gorillas can be identified by nose prints unique to each individual, their likeness to humans doesn’t stop their population numbers from dwindling due to human activity. Habitat loss, poaching, war, and civil unrest led to a situation where there were only 230 left in the wild during the late 1970s. Conservation efforts have been slow, but successful. Scientists believe there are now at least 1,063 mountain gorillas living in the wild.