Gorillas might be among our closest ancestors, but they are also undeniably scary. Intelligent and big, we never know what they might think of us and whether they are going to attack. Movies like those in the King Kong franchise which was established in 1933 have taken up this fear and brought it to the big screen. But how are gorillas actually able to harm us, if they chose to do so?
Do gorillas have claws? No. Gorillas have hands that are very similar to the hands of us humans. They have creases in their palms as we do, fingernails, and even individual fingerprints. Probably the most significant characteristic of both human hands and the hands of primates are the opposable thumbs – this means that the thumbs can move to touch all the other fingers on a hand.
In comparison to the thumbs of gorillas, human thumbs are longer, though. Experts argue that a long, human-like thumb would hinder the apes from performing the hook-like grasp they need to hold on to branches. Contrary to human toes, the big toes on the feet of gorillas are opposable, too, so that they can grasp onto things with all four of their limbs.
Both humans and primates have four fingers. Here it is the gorilla that has longer fingers. They assist him to grab onto branches and swing from tree to tree.
Since gorillas walk on their knuckles their hands are less flexible than human hands. Because their wrist needs to hold up their weight it is more important for the wrist to be stable rather than flexible. The wrist-bones of knuckle-walkers make sure that the wrist will neither bend nor extend when the bodyweight rests upon it. The arms of gorillas are longer than their legs. This makes sure that even when walking on all fours the head of a gorilla is still higher up than its rear end.
RELATED: Do Gorillas Have Tails?
Are Gorillas Dangerous to Humans?
Like a lot of wild animals, gorillas are not actively aggressive but will defend themselves when provoked. They are rather shy animals, and if they chose to interact with humans they have a higher tendency to play with them, especially when you encounter them in a situation where they have been already been acquainted with humans before, like on a gorilla trek – a hiking tour with the specific purpose of getting close to gorillas.
When they feel threatened they will make bluff charges instead of attacking directly. This means that they will start thumping on their chest, make noises, and run towards the threat, but then stop a few feet shy from actually attacking. In this case, it is best for you to act non-threatening: do not come closer to the gorilla, rather crouch down to make yourself seem smaller, do not engage, and walk away.
Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist who has worked with apes since the 1970s, says that in all the instances he has heard of a human being killed by a gorilla, the human was to blame.
Are there Several Kinds of Gorillas?
Yes! Gorilla is a genus that is divided into two species and four subspecies.
The two species are the eastern gorillas and the western gorillas. Eastern gorillas are the largest living primates. The two subspecies of the eastern gorilla are the mountain gorilla, which inhabits the volcanic hillsides of Uganda, Rwanda, and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eastern lowland gorilla, which also leaves in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The western gorilla species consists of the cross river gorilla, which inhabits the Cameroon-Nigeria border region, and the western lowland gorilla. The latter is the most numerous and probably also the most well-known gorilla species.
The American zoologist and primatologist Dian Fossey made them famous in her book Gorillas in the Mist which she wrote about her experiences working with gorillas for decades. Like Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees, she was instrumental in bringing forth human interest and respect for our close ancestors.
As you may have noticed, the “silverback gorilla” that many have heard of is not actually a species or subspecies! This term simply refers to a male gorilla that has attained a distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which typically happens when he is about 12 years old.