Learning How to Be a Gorilla from Mom

Here at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, we’re very excited about the baby gorilla born last month. The mother, Bana, is being a great caregiver for the infant, Patty, who will be completely dependent on mom for many months.

Gorilla infant Patty snuggles close to mom, Bana. Patty will remain dependent on Bana for day-to-day care--and observations on how adult gorillas behave--for years to come.

Great apes, like many primates, have a relatively long pre-weaning period. It will be many years before the youngster ventures completely out on her own and becomes an independent participant in her social group. In the meantime, she’ll have the opportunity to do a lot of learning from the safety of her mother’s protective watch.

Learning the full range of necessary behaviors is a critically important skill for young primates, and every species has its own set of behaviors that must be implemented. Unlike humans, where language and direct teaching plays an important role in infant learning, young primates rely almost exclusively on observational learning to pick up the nuances of behavior. As Patty continues to grow, you’ll notice her spending a lot of time observing her social group—and especially her mother—as they go about their daily routine: finding food, interacting with others and making nests.

How primates develop this full range of behavioral skills is the topic of a chapter I co-authored in a new book, “The Evolution of Primate Societies” (University of Chicago Press, 2012), with former Fisher Center director, Elizabeth Lonsdorf. In this chapter, we discuss how early experiences have a profound impact on the behavior of young primates later in life. We describe this important developmental period for species ranging from tamarins to chimpanzees. While the book is written for an academic audience, anyone interested in primate behavior will find the vast range of topics a worthy read.

One of the take-home messages of the chapter is how critically important early experiences are for the survival and development of young primates. With the school year underway, I’m sure all of us understand and recall the importance of good teachers and the value of key role models. Unfortunately, not all primates get these opportunities. Young chimpanzees raised in unusual circumstances as household pets may not even see another chimpanzee for the first decade of their life.

How does this affect their ability to learn critically important skills necessary for the rest of their long lives? Lincoln Park Zoo’s Project ChimpCARE is investigating this very question. This month, Hani Freeman, Ph.D., will return to the zoo after 14 months traveling around the country studying ex-pet and ex-performing chimpanzees. Soon we’ll have important empirical data that will allow us insight into the precise nature of these deficiencies. These data will help us promote policies offering all apes the opportunity to be with other apes during these formative years.

Luckily, Bana’s little infant doesn’t have these problems. Under the watchful eye of her mother, the rest of her social group (and Fisher Center scientists), this gorilla has every opportunity to glean the important details of what it’s like to be a “big girl” gorilla.

Steve Ross

Steve Ross, Ph.D.,
is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.


Hi Steve

I really enjoyed reading your article. Gorillas are such wonderful animals and we should all be doing as much as possible to save them for future generations.

Thanks for the comment!

This is really interesting for me. It was cool to learn about this, especially because I actually did the ADOPTtion.

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