Friday, August 5, 2011

A wild view of apes of the planet

“It’s a very humbling experience to come face to face with an adult, male lowland gorilla,” says Emory primate disease ecologist Tom Gillespie. “They have a characteristic bluff.”

The male charges toward the perceived threat, says Gillespie, who has been charged often during in his research in Africa. “They put a leaf between their teeth, they beat their chest, and they move back and forth at very close proximity, just in front of you. You can smell their breath at times when they’re doing this. It takes all of your strength away. So it’s a very humbling experience.”

But despite their enormous physical power, gorillas don’t resort to violence unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect themselves or their families. “No one has been killed by a gorilla in any case where they didn’t provoke the gorilla,” Gillespie says. “There’s a misconception of what a gorilla is. Gorillas are extremely peaceful animals. They’re 100-percent vegetarian and they live in a family group that basically keeps to itself.”

What we know from studies of apes in the wild runs counter to the characteristics of the animals portrayed in the new movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” he says.

Even the more war-like behavior observed in chimpanzees in the wild might be less aggressive without human involvement, Gillespie says. “A lot of those things happened because we intervened. We went in there and fed a bunch of bananas to the animals. They changed their ranges, they got accustomed to getting bananas and then when we walked away and stopped giving them bananas, all the sudden they needed food and they started fighting over where they’re going to get the food.”

Banana split: Chimps show they share
Gorilla vet works for global health
Primate disease ecologist tracks germs in the wild

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