Mama Gorilla Knows Best

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While few question the importance of maternal care in humans, scientists do question the influence of a mother’s behavior in other species. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology have now published an article in PLOS ONE showing exactly how important a mother’s guidance can be to our friend the western lowland gorilla. After monitoring the spread of two specific behaviors in captive groups of gorillas, the authors suggest that gorilla mothers play a vital role in social learning and the transmission of behaviors between generations.

The authors videotaped gorilla behavior for 4-6 hours per day over the course of eight weeks in 2000 and 2010 at Howletts Wild Animal Parks. Throughout their sittings, they watched for two specific behaviors shown by different individuals: the “Puff-Blowing” technique, used during mealtimes to separate oat from chaff, and the “Throw-Kiss-Display,” one male gorilla’s coy way of drawing visitors’ attention to him. Check out the live-action versions in the videos below.

During the initial observational period in 2000, the “Puff-Blowing” technique was used by three adult females, while the “Throw-Kiss-Display” was implemented by a single silverback male, Kouillou, and no other members of the group.

By the time the researchers returned in 2010, the “Puff-Blowing” technique was practiced by 15 individuals, while the “Throw-Kiss-Display” had been dropped entirely, even by the original practitioner.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that the spread of the observed “Puff-Blowing” technique to new gorillas could be tracked through mother-child relationships. All but three offspring (13 total) of the original three mothers used the technique. Furthermore, this behavior was never seen in the offspring of mothers who did not perform the technique.

Based on their observations, the authors suggest that the actions of the gorilla mother play a major role in the transmission of behaviors. In other words, baby gorilla see, baby gorilla do. While the authors mention that “Puff-Blowing” may be more likely to be passed down because it’s useful at mealtime—unlike the “Throw-Kiss-Display”—they argue that the path of transmission (mother-offspring) is significant. The authors also indicate that genetic factors may affect the occurrence of these behaviors, as not all offspring of the “Puff-Blowing” mothers inherited the action, suggesting that other forces may be at play.

Lesson learned: Even gorillas need their mommies.

For more evidence of the importance of mothers in the animal kingdom, check out this paper on migration patterns in humpback whales.

Citation: Luef EM, Pika S (2013) Gorilla Mothers Also Matter! New Insights on Social Transmission in Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in Captivity. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79600. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079600

Image Credit: USINFO Photo Gallery

Videos: S1 and S2 from the paper

 


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