Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) Influenced Landscapes in Equatorial Africa

Gorilla costumes are popular on Halloween.  There is something frightening about a gorilla.  They resemble humans but are bigger, much more powerful, and hairy.  Moreover, they’re armed with sharp canine teeth.  For tens of thousands of years gorillas were better adapted to some environments than technologically primitive humans.  Gorillas can survive with more success than naked unarmed humans (See the tv series Naked and Afraid on Discovery Channel) in lowland tropical jungles and cold vegetated highlands.  But the human population has exploded in recent centuries, and people are infringing on gorilla habitat.  Though no physical match for a gorilla, humans do use projectile weapons to slaughter their cousin apes.  I think a man who would enjoy hunting a gorilla would also have no qualms about shooting his neighbor for the hell of it.  In reality humans are much scarier than gorillas.

Mountain gorillas significantly modify their environment.

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Gorillas are much more powerful than humans.  An unarmed human would stand no chance in a fight with one.  They could literally tear the arms off the top human MMA fighter.  I mean pulling the arms off at the shoulder socket and tearing them off with the skin attached.

Mountain gorilla habitat is shaped by many forces.  They live between 7200-14,000 feet in elevation, an environment known as equatorial highland.  The high elevation keeps temperatures cool and catches rain clouds, resulting in moist conditions, but the location near the equator is frost free, fostering the year round green vegetation gorillas need because their diet is almost completely vegetarian.  Volcanic activity, rocky landslides, bamboo die-offs, fire, and gorilla and elephant foraging create conditions favorable for the low level plant growth that can support gorilla populations.  According to Jonathan Kingdon, gorillas chase duikers, buffalo, and elephants away from their favorite feeding grounds.  Before they learned to fear men with projectile weapons, I suspect they chased humans away too.  Just imagine Pleistocene humans encountering gorillas for the first time.  It’s likely these people were walking along with just spears.  If the gorillas felt threatened and attacked quickly enough, the first humans to see them  probably fled for their lives.  Alas, today there are only 620 mountain gorillas left in the wild.

 

Mountain gorilla family group feeding in habitat

Mountain gorilla habitat.  Lots of low level vegetation due to the variety of factors mentioned above.

Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei) diverged from western lowland gorillas (G. gorilla) during the early to mid Pleistocene Ice Ages when savannah habitat expanded and isolated gorillas into forest refugia.  Gorillas can’t survive on savannahs because those environments are subject to long droughts and won’t support the plants gorillas need to eat.  Genetic studies suggest this divergence occurred at least 261,000 years ago during the Illinois Ice Age.  Eastern lowland gorillas expanded their range following the end of the last Ice Age ~15,000 BP when forest habitat expanded.  Eastern lowland gorillas are the same species as mountain gorillas.  There are 4000 eastern lowland gorillas left in the wild.  Western lowland gorillas still have an healthy population of an estimated 100,000.

Reference:

Anthony, Nicola; et. al.

“The Role of Pleistocene Refugia and Rivers in Shaping Gorilla Genetic Diversity in Central Africa”

PNAS 2007

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