The gorilla's coat color is black. Short, thin, gray-black to brown-black hair covers the entire body except the face. Western lowland gorillas may have a more brownish coloration. A small white tuft of hair on their rump distinguishes infants up to four years old. The white patch helps the mother keep track of the infant and assists other group members in identifying the gorilla as an infant.
Mature silverback males have a saddle of white hair across the small of their backs. In western lowland gorillas, the silver may extend to rump and thighs. Western lowland females may go gray below the ears and on the neck and top of the head as they age. Compared to other subspecies, western lowland gorillas have a more pronounced brow ridge and ears that appear small in relation to their heads. They also have a differently shaped nose and lip than other subspecies.
Adult male gorillas' heads look conical due to the large bony crests on the top and back of the skull. These crests anchor the massive muscles used to support and operate their large jaws and teeth. Adult female gorillas also have these crests, but they are much less pronounced.
In comparison to the mountain gorilla, the western lowland gorilla has a wider and larger skull, and their big toe is spread apart more from the alignment of the other four toes. Gorillas' arms are longer than their legs; when they move on all fours, they knuckle-walk, supporting their weight on the third and fourth digits of their curled hands. Like other primates, each individual has distinctive fingerprints. Gorillas also have unique nose prints.
Gorillas are the largest of the great apes, but the western lowland gorilla is the smallest of the subspecies. Males are much larger than females. Adult males weigh an average of 300 pounds (136.1 kilograms) and up to 500 pounds (226.8 kilograms). They stand up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.
Adult females weigh from 150 to 200 pounds (113.4 kilograms) and stand up to 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) tall. Adult males have an arm span of 8 feet (2.4 meters), and females have an arm span of 6.5 feet (2 meters).
Western lowland gorillas are broadly distributed across the Congo Basin, and are more or less continuously distributed across the countries of Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo.
Though present historically in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they are now likely extinct there. Western lowland gorilla ranges have been measured from 9 to 14 square miles (14.5 to 22.5 square kilometers), rarely overlapping other troops.
The average distance traveled in a day is usually less than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), with longer distances traveled when more fruit is abundant. Because of their large size, gorillas spend most of their time on the ground.
Gorillas communicate using auditory signals, visual signals and odors. They are generally quiet animals but they may also scream, bark and roar. Scientists have heard up to 22 different gorilla vocalizations, each seeming to have its own meaning.
Some examples of gorilla "body language" include crouching low and approaching from the side when being submissive; walking directly when confident and standing, slapping their chests and advancing when aggressive.
Gorillas are primarily herbivorous, eating the leaves and stems of herbs, shrubs and vines. They also eat the fleshy fruits of close to a hundred seasonally fruiting tree species. Other gorilla subspecies eat proportionally less fruit. Gorillas get some protein from invertebrates found on leaves and fruits. Adult male gorillas eat about 45 pounds (32 kilograms) of food per day. Females eat about two-thirds of that amount.
At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the group is fed together in the morning. Food items are cut up and spread over a wide area. In the summer, this is usually done in the yard. In the afternoon, individuals are separated so each animal gets its share of preferred food items. Morning and evening foods include chow, greens, fruits and vegetables.
Forage items placed in hay for the gorillas include popcorn, sunflower seeds, peanuts, "enrich bits," beans and diced fruits and vegetables. Fresh tree trimmings are given daily. Some of the gorillas favorite browse; options are Bradford pear, willow, mulberry with berries and maple.
There are three feeding behaviors sometimes observed in gorillas in human care that can bother visitors. These behaviors are natural, though not to humans. They are regurgitation and reingestion, coprophagy (eating feces) and urine drinking. Regurgitation and reingestion involves an animal regurgitating some of its food and re-eating it. Biologists do not entirely understand why gorillas exhibit this behavior in human care.
A few ideas include starch or sugar content, mineral recapture or the food tasting good. Provision of forage foods, increased smaller feedings and providing browse seem to reduce this behavior in some individuals. Coprophagy is seen in the wild and is defined as the eating of feces. Gorillas do not have very efficient digestive systems for a high fiber diet, so unprocessed food can be found in their feces. Coprophagy allows an animal to utilize this food. Similarly, urine drinking might be explained as the recollection of minerals.
The duration and frequency of sexual activity in gorillas are low in comparison to other great apes. The silverback has exclusive mating rights with the adult females in his group. The reproductive success of males depends upon the maintenance of exclusive rights to adult females. The female chooses to mate with the silverback by emigrating into his family group. Normally quiet animals, some gorillas are notably loud during copulation.
There is no set time of year for gorilla births. Western lowland gorilla gestation lasts about eight and a half months. Birth occurs in a supine position over the course of a few minutes to several hours. The offspring are not born helpless. They have an instinctive grasp behavior seen in other primates allowing them to hold on to their mothers' chests.
Mothers can be seen supporting the infants for the first few months of life. Birth weight averages 4 pounds (2 kilograms). For the first couple of years, gorilla infants grow at twice the rate of a human baby. They can crawl and ride on their mothers' backs at 3 months old. They may continue to ride on their mothers' backs, chests or legs until they are 3.5-4 years old.
Females become sexually mature between 6 and 9 years of age, usually having their first baby between ten and eleven years old. The estrus cycle lasts 28 to 32 days. Ovulation is a two to three day period during which copulation occurs. While ovulating, the female signals her receptiveness to the male by her closer physical proximity to him, eye contact or staring, or displaying her rear end.
The interbirth interval is usually four and a half years. A female may have between three and six offspring in her lifetime. She is reproductive throughout her lifetime and does not experience menopause. As females become sexually mature, they transfer family groups or join lone males.
So-called "black back" males are generally eight to 12 years of age and sexually mature but not yet physically full-grown. Black backs also leave their birth family, but instead of entering a new family group, they can live alone or in all male groups until a young female chooses one of them to start a family. A black back may also challenge a silverback for an established territory and family group. At times, the heir apparent may stay in his birth family group. Silverback males are full adults at about 13 years of age or older.
Gorillas are most active in the morning and late afternoon. They wake up just after sunrise to search for food and eat for several hours. At midday, adults usually nap in a day nest while the young wrestle and play games. After their midday nap, they forage again. Before dusk, each gorilla makes its own nest. Infants nest with their mothers.
In the wild, gorillas live for 30 or 40 years. In human care, gorillas may live into their 50s.
Western gorillas are a critically endangered species. They have been plagued by exceptionally high levels of disease and hunting, which has resulted in a population decline of over sixty percent in the past 20 to 25 years.
In 2007, IUCN's status for western gorillas was changed from endangered to critically endangered. This change occurred when it was discovered that one of two subspecies, the western lowland gorilla, had been devastated by the commercial bushmeat trade, the Ebola virus and the spread of logging, which alters forest structure and facilitates poaching.
Their population has declined by more than 60 percent over the last 20 to 25 years, with about one-third of the total population found in protected areas affected by the Ebola virus in the last 15 years. Cross River gorillas are also subject to hunting and habitat loss due to forest conversion, and their current population is small and fragmented.
A 2018 study estimates that more than 360,000 gorillas still inhabit the forests of Western Equatorial Africa, but 80 percent of those gorillas live outside of protected habitat.
- Support organizations like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute that research better ways to protect and care for this animal and other endangered species. Consider donating your time, money or goods.
- Share the story of this animal with others. Simply raising awareness about this species can contribute to its overall protection.
- Are you a student? Did you love what you learned about this animal? Make it the topic of your next school project, or start a conservation club at your school. You'll learn even more and share the importance of saving species with classmates and teachers, too.
The Zoo is home to seven western lowland gorillas that reside at the Great Ape House:
Baraka is an adult male, or silverback, who resides in the gorilla troop with Mandara, Calaya, Kibibi and Moke. He is the largest member of our gorilla troop, weighing-in at more than 400 pounds. Baraka has a large crest on his head and a saddle of silver hair covering his back. He was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in April 1992, and spent about two years living at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, during his mid-teens. In Omaha, he sired one offspring that did not survive. Baraka has sired one offspring, Moke, here in Washington, D.C.
Mandara is an adult female who resides in the gorilla troop with Baraka, Calaya, Kibibi and Moke. She earned the nickname “Super Mom” due to having six offspring: Kejana, Kigali, Ktembe, Kwame, Kojo and Kibibi. She raised Baraka as her own offspring shortly after his birth. Mandara was born at the Lincoln Park Zoo in April 1982 and came to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in October 1985.
Calaya is an adult female who resides in the gorilla troop with Baraka, Mandara, Kibibi and Moke. She is very socially savvy with the other gorilla members. Calaya was born in August 2002 at the Woodland Park Zoo and arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in February 2015 on a breeding recommendation from the Gorilla Species Survival Plan.
Kibibi is an adult female who resides in the gorilla troop with Baraka, Mandara, Calaya and Moke. She is full of energy and often plays with the other members of her troop. Kibibi is eager to participate in training and regularly seeks out play sessions with Moke. She was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in January 2009.
Moke is an young male who resides in the mixed-sex gorilla troop with Baraka, Calaya, Mandara and Kibibi. He was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on April 15, 2018, to mother Calaya and father Baraka per a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival.
Zahra, an infant female, is the newest member of the gorilla troop. She was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute on May 27, 2023, to mother Calaya and father Baraka per a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival. The name "Zahra", which means "beautiful flower" in Swahili, was chosen in a public poll with over 25,000 votes cast.