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#GorillaStory: Moke Displays His Dominance

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown. 

Our western lowland gorilla infant, Moke, is 14 weeks old, and already he recognizes and responds to his name when keepers greet him. Since birth Moke has been very vocal—whenever he wanted to nurse, for example, or when mom, Calaya, held him upside-down—but now he has expanded his vocabulary to include grunts, whimpers and whines. His coordination is also developing quite well, and he is climbing the mesh of his enclosure higher than ever before. Calaya will allow him to ascend ten or more feet before he either whimpers or reaches for her, or she decides it is time to come down.

Although he is only three-and-a-half months old, we are already seeing him attempt what resembles a display behavior. Gorillas, and males in particular, will bend an arm in front of their chest, then turn their head to one side in an exaggerated manner. These movements are followed by running or a dominance display. Often, chest-beating will accompany these displays, wherein the gorillas cup their hands to amplify the popping sound, which is distinctive and sharp.

When Moke is in a rambunctious mood, I have observed him standing with his arm bent in the “display” position. However, instead of turning his head to one side, he turns it from side-to-side rapidly. This aspect—along with the rest of the display behaviors—needs a whole lot more practice! He usually falls over but gets back up in an animated (and adorable) way and tries it again.  

Now that Moke is spending more time climbing and walking, Calaya sets him down with greater frequency. However, she keeps Mandara and Kibibi in her sights. Ever since Mandara’s encounter with Moke, Calaya is more alert and quick to chase her off if she is near when Moke is exploring the habitat. Since that afternoon, Mandara has refrained from “borrowing” Moke. It appears that the status quo—with Calaya in charge—has returned. We continue to monitor the troop dynamics closely, and everyone appears to be getting along just fine.

Prior to Moke’s birth, we would give plush toys to our gorillas to interact with as a form of enrichment. Mandara has always shown an interest in the toy gorillas, which gave her an outlet to express her natural maternal behaviors. She would spend several days taking care of her toy ‘baby’—carrying it around, cradling it and holding it as she slept. At times, we would see Kibibi with the toy, but her attention to it was not as maternal as Mandara’s.  

Following Mandara’s encounter with Moke, keepers presented her with a new plush ‘baby.’ She took it straight away. Mandara and Kibibi sat near each other and touched the toy for a few moments. Then, Mandara intentionally tossed the toy to Kibibi. Her reaction to the toy paled in comparison to the true heart-stealer of the troop, Moke! Mandara continues to admire Moke from a distance. We look forward to the time when he is older and Calaya is willing to let Mandara and Moke bond.

Can’t get enough of Moke? Follow the latest updates on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo youngest gorilla using the hashtag #GorillaStory. During your next Zoo visit, don’t miss the daily 11:30 a.m. gorilla keeper talk and other amazing animal encounters!