How Do Mountain Gorillas Communicate With Each Other?


When we say Gorilla, people have a common conception of stereotyping them as they have been popularized in movies. They generally imagine them as aggressive creatures who just roar and pound their chests angrily.

Yes, gorillas are massive but they are peaceful and gentle too. They possess several emotions just like humans. All the antics and behaviors of gorillas generally are a means of communication for them.

Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of Eastern gorillas that are restricted to some places in Rwanda, and Uganda.

Travellers coming for Gorilla Trekking in Uganda are fascinated by these unique species and often wonder about their socialization skills. Here are some details about the interesting social creatures and their behavior.

Some Facts About Mountain Gorillas

Gorillas are the largest living primates that live in central-east Africa and West African forests. There are two different species of Gorillas- the eastern and the western gorillas. The mountain gorillas fall under the Eastern subspecies.

Mountain gorillas are endangered and restricted to a few areas of Africa. They are mainly concentrated around the Virunga Mountains (range of extinct volcanoes) that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Rest are found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Highlights about Mountain Gorilla Population- More than 1000 Mountain gorillas are the only ape population in the world whose numbers have increased with time. Category- Endangered according to IUCN Red List. Height- 4 to 5 ½ feet while standing on two feet.Weight- up to 440 lbs.

What makes Mountain Gorillas unique?

  • As their name suggests, mountain gorillas live in forested mountains, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet.
  • These mountain gorillas have longer and thicker fur that makes them adapt to extreme freezing temperatures.
  • Mountain gorillas have longer faces and broader chests as compared to other gorilla species.
  • Mountain Gorilla Trekking became a Safari attraction only after legendary American primatologist, Dian Fossey made them famous in the west. She noted their behavior and studied them extensively for 18 years.  

Why Do Mountain Gorillas Communicate?

  • The most interesting fact about gorillas is that they share about 98% of their DNA with humans. Hence, they are the closest relatives of humans. This makes them susceptible to various human emotions, such as sadness and laughter.

Yes, they can’t speak as humans do but they can communicate through various other ways including body postures, vocalizations, and facial expressions.

  • Also, mountain gorillas forage in dense forests and high altitudes. Here they cannot find each other easily. So, they communicate using sounds to warn fellow gorillas of any attack or as a means of finding each other.

Methods of Communication

Mountain gorillas can communicate through various methods as mentioned below:

  • Vocalizations

Visitors coming in for Gorilla Safaris are astonished to know that there are 25 distinct visualization tones used by mountain gorillas. It is established that Silverbacks gorillas who are the group leaders vocalize the most.

Some vocalization tones are mentioned below:

  • Grunts and Barks:

Grunting and barking are mostly heard when mountain gorillas are traveling. As gorillas travel in dense forests, it’s important for them to produce these sounds which will help them to know about the whereabouts of each other.

Grunts and barks are also used for socializing especially when discipline is required in the groups of gorillas.

  • Roars and screams:

Roaring and screaming are predominantly done by Silverbacks as signs of alarm or warning.

  • Belches:

One of the most frequent means of communicating is to produce these rumbling belching sounds. This is used to communicate a sense of contentment among the mountain gorillas.

  • Whimpering, crying, and screaming:

This is generally done by baby gorillas. Babies whimper, cry, or scream when they want to call their mothers for their needs.

  • Humming or singing:

Mountain gorillas hum or sing when they are content after finding a preferred food. Even a whole family of gorillas can hum or sing together.

  • Facial Expressions

The emotions of a mountain gorilla are communicated through its’ facial expression. You can know its mood by looking at its face. Some of the facial expressions used by Gorillas are play face and smiling or yawning.

  • Play Face:

Play face refers to the face when the mountain gorilla has an open mouth with a low hanging bottom lip. The teeth are not visible too.

This is the most common expression and is commonly displayed by juveniles.

Play face actually suggests laughter in the case of gorillas.

  • Smiling

Another way by which mountain gorillas communicate is by smiling. Smiling is a sign of submission or appeasement.  One way is being bared teeth with both rows of teeth showing visibly and their mouth is wide open.

  • Yawning

Yawning is generally a sign of male dominance and serves as a warning sign. Male Mountain gorillas yawn when they are distressed or anxious.

  • Chest Beating
  • Chest beating is the most iconic gesture when it comes to mountain gorillas.

Gorillas have large air sacs located in their chests. When they beat their chests with cupped hands, the sound produced travels a long distance. They often do this when they are about to charge another gorilla.

  • This is generally done by the leaders of the groups called Silverbacks. They thump the ground and beat their chest to show their power and intimidate others.
  • Body Postures
  • Sometimes Silverbacks exhibit a tightened posture to communicate their unhappiness to other group members. Their chests appear bigger and more terrifying with this tightened posture.
  • They also puff up their chest to look big and threatening when they themselves feel threatened. 
  • Also, these ground-dwelling apes display different body postures to communicate their mood and desire to their partners.

Given below is a table to summarize the meaning of some popular behaviors exhibited by Mountain Gorillas. Our visitors have observed mountain gorillas exhibiting such behaviors quite often.

Some Behaviors of Mountain GorillasWhat do Mountain Gorillas want to convey?
One gorilla displaces another from the resting or feeding spot.The former wants to convey that he is the dominant one.
Gorillas grooming each other.A gentle gesture that involves removing dust, leaves, and dirt. Mothers are generally seen grooming their infants.  
Belch vocalizations while resting.It means ‘all is well.’
Chest Beating/ Hooting vocalizations/ smashing plants/Hitting the ground.Antagonistic behaviors are generally used to intimidate others.
Display and Strut stance postures (straight limbs with arched backs and heads moving side to side)This is used to impress the opponent. This also means that the interaction will resolve without any physical fight.

Can Gorillas Communicate With Humans?

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda gives our visitors a unique opportunity to spend time with mountain gorillas. No doubt it will be an unforgettable experience for travelers.  

So, can gorillas really communicate with humans? The answer is yes. Mostly, mountain gorillas communicate with humans using sign language and gestures. Research shows that mountain gorillas are like humans and are friendly to them.

However, mountain gorillas are prone to human diseases. So, it’s advised to maintain distance from them when you come for Mountain Gorilla Trekking.

To sum it up, mountain gorillas are intelligent creatures who use various senses including seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching for their communication. They live in social groups and use both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication.  

So, if you want to have a face-to-face encounter with charismatic mountain gorillas, then do take up Gorilla Trekking Activity in Uganda and Rwanda. You need to hold a valid permit from government bodies in both countries for going on Gorilla Trekking Safaris.

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