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18 August 2012

In Rwanda: 24 July 2012, the gorilla slap

Journal 24 July 2012

Early mornings and fast hikes are worth it, when you’re rewarded with a two-hour gorilla play session on the side of an inactive volcano. That pretty much sums up my day yesterday.

What, you mean there’s more to this journal?

Ok, so here’s the details:

Chelsea, Amanda, Aya, and I were ready to go by 0600 this morning. Chelsea and I lucked out (in my opinion) and got picked to go to Titus’ group. Pretty exciting – even though Titus has passed on, he was something of a hero of mine, and getting to observe the group that is still named for him was pretty awesome. Theodette, one of the Karisoke research assistants, took us and Prof Dieter up to Titus’ group. It was a pretty fast hike up to the buffalo wall, which wore both Chelsea and I out, but seeing the gorillas breathed the life back into us. Theodette had to concentrate on doing her observations, but another tracker (whose name I can’t even begin to spell, unfortunately) spent the time with us and helped us to identify individuals. Most notably, we were able to watch two juveniles, named Fat (8 year old female) and Segasera (6 year old male; not sure I spelled that right, and he was called “Seg” for short). They spent around two hours playing, with a brief – maybe 20 minute – nap in the middle.

Their play vocalizations were practically constant. In other species, Chelsea and I have been noting vocalizations during play, and we really haven’t heard a whole lot. For gorillas, we had to scrap trying to count vocalizations because it never actually stopped. We would have had to count the entire session as one long vocalization, which doesn’t make sense. So instead, we noted the vocalizations as constant, and counted chest beats – another communicative noise – instead. And actually, “chest beats” is something of a misnomer because when it’s a play invitation, they beat the tops of their bellies, not their chests. We noticed Fat doing that, and asked the tracker if she did it that way because she was female (remembering that only males have the anatomy to really make that chest beat ‘pop’ sound). He said they all did it that way when it was a play chest beat. Sure enough, we later noticed Seg doing that, too. Thinking about how much they vocalize, and why that’s not the case with other species, went hand-in-hand with the realization that their play is almost entirely focused on social dominance. Along those two lines, I wondered if they were able to focus on their social relationships because they didn’t have to worry about learning to fight or evade predators; and if their prominent noise-making was also due to a lack of predators. Hmm.

Oh, and I got slapped by a gorilla. Seg. So did Chelsea. He was testing to see if we would play, too, I think.

Best Day Ever. (Yet.)

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