ZOO TALES: New Gorilla a Treat for Zoo Visitors
Visitors who haven't been to the North Carolina Zoo in a while might not be able to tell one of the park's newest arrivals from his predecessor. Nkosi, a 16-year-old male western lowland gorilla seems to be making himself right at home since his recent arrival from the Columbus, Ohio, Zoo.
Considered a mature adult, Nkosi will join the park's three adult females. At about 430 pounds, he is within the normal weight range for adult males -- 350 to 500.
Gorillas have always seemed to fascinate zoo visitors and are always ranked high when visitors are asked to list their zoo favorites. They are the largest of all primates -- a group that includes monkeys, orangutans, chimpanzees, lemurs and humans.
Despite their looks, they are actually peaceful, family-oriented animals unless disturbed. Males are known for their intimidating chest-beating charge, but this is usually a bluff to scare off intruders while the rest of his band disappears into the forest. However, the chest-beating is also used in play.
They are sometimes compared to humans, but there are many distinct differences. Like humans, they are able to stand upright, but gorillas prefer to walk using their hands as well as their legs. Because their arms are longer than their legs, they often use the backs of their fingers like extra feet when they walk. Along with orangutans and chimpanzees, they are the only animals that use this "knuckle walk."
Though gorillas are often erroneously called monkeys, they are actually great apes. Apes do not have tails, their most noticeable characteristic and the one that distinguishes them from their smaller primate cousins, the monkeys. Both gorillas and monkeys are highly skilled climbers, but gorillas spend most of their time on the ground, while monkeys most spend most of their time in trees.
Gorillas are usually found in communities (called troops) of as many as 30 individuals, though young males will often spend time on their own. These troops are led by one dominant adult male called a "silverback" because of the silver saddle of hair that grows on its back. Troops can also include several other young males and females with their offspring.
Lowland gorillas tend to be slightly smaller than their less-common mountain gorilla cousins. They also have shorter hair and longer arms.
Gorillas rely more on vision than on smell and have excellent color vision, just like that of humans. Also like humans, gorillas and other apes have a larger brain, relative to body size, than do the other primates.
Although they are the most common and widespread kind of gorillas (there are four different subspecies), western lowland gorillas were classified as "critically endangered" in 2007 because their population was projected to decline more than 80 percent over the next three generations (66 years). Species classified as "critically endangered" have an extremely high risk of becoming extinct.
Over the years, wild gorillas have been difficult to study because of their reclusiveness and their reliance on remote areas of densely vegetated tropical forests.
In the wild, they live in rain forests, ranging from the highlands of the Nigeria-Cameroon border in western Central Africa to the mountains of Uganda and Rwanda in a belt across the African continent that includes the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Cabinda enclave of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
There are two species and four subspecies of gorillas left in the wild. Studying lowland gorillas in their natural surroundings is providing insight into developing more effective conservation strategies for preserving both the species and its environment -- which is constantly shrinking due to human encroachment. In addition to managing its own group of gorillas, the N.C. Zoo is actively involved with gorilla research and conservation in the field. N.C. Zoo staff work in both Nigeria and Cameroon to help preserve the Cross River gorilla, the most endangered of all the gorilla subspecies.
Acquiring data in the wild from gorillas' natural habitats not only helps to ensure their survival, but also contributes in designing high-quality zoological environments for them.
Zoo visitors can see the zoo's four gorillas daily in the Forest Glade exhibit in the Africa region.
Tom Gillespie works in the public affairs office for the N.C. Zoo.
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