We have long been fascinated by the social behaviour of primates, humankind’s closest relatives, whose social relationships and behaviour can tell us something about the evolution of our own.
The findings of a study published in Ethology into the social relationships of mountain gorillas at a research centre in Rwanda founded by Dian Fossey, whose story was told in the film Gorillas in the Mist, focus on the social relationships between young and older males.
Time spent together has proved a good indicator of allegiances and even friendships within the ape world. Social animals such as gorillas appear to form friendships as they offer value in terms of survival and reproduction, manifesting in sharing food, childcare and warnings of potential danger.
Ranking is an important feature of gorilla society, with higher-ranked apes having better reproductive success. Having friends, especially high-ranking ones, helps to maintain this position. Although gorillas have typically been found living in groups with just one dominant silverback with several females and young, the research shows that these gorillas have been living in multi-male groups for years. Although there is a dominant silverback, there are also other silverbacks in the group, providing the opportunity to study how male relationships operate.
Males were found to have preferred friendships within the group that endured over time. Friendships tended to be between dominant males and younger males, an allegiance that makes sense for the younger male in terms of survival and protection. Older males may be partially motivated by their desire to protect their group’s young; however, there also appears to be a mentoring relationship whereby the younger male learns from the older male, with the alpha concerned for the future survival of his group.
These animals are fascinating and gorilla trekking understandably continues to be popular, with many companies offering the opportunity to observe them first hand.
This research is notable as these primates appear to have dispensed with the conventional way of living, resulting in new social relationships. To an extent this reduction in rivalry between males seems to have produced a fairly tranquil way of living. There is further research to be done, but there are interesting parallels to be drawn between how gorillas and humans find value in their social relationships.