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Category — Primates

It’s Good to be a Three-year-old Gorilla!

It’s hard to believe, but Gladys the gorilla turns three years old today!  Since arriving at the Cincinnati Zoo as a one-month-old orphan, we have had one fun and fulfilling adventure with her.  However, Gladys has a lot of adventures still to come on her long road to adulthood.

Soon to be three years old, it's Gladys! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Soon to be three years old, it’s Gladys! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

As with people, gorillas take a long time to grow up. For females, it takes about 10 years to mature, and for males, it takes 13 to 15 years!  During these years, they go through several stages, each one building on the previous stage.  Until they are three years old, gorillas are referred to as babies and they are dependent on their mothers for nourishment.  They will start sampling solid foods by around one to three months old, but will nurse from mom for three to four years.  The amount they nurse will gradually flip-flop with solid consumption over those years.

Gorillas are born with very little natural instincts. Unlike a snake or spider that pretty much know everything they will need to survive the second they hatch, gorillas have many learned skills they must acquire over many years. Gorillas have over 13 different vocalizations and inflections, along with many facial expressions and body postures that form a complex language. They start learning this language from day one.  They have rules of social etiquette to learn as well as survival skills about where to go or not go, what to eat and what to embrace or fear.  Baby gorillas build their motor skills and strength during this stage as well, all setting the foundation for the next phase.

Gladys hangs with her bestie, Mona (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys hangs with her bestie, Mona (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Between three and six years old, a gorilla has pretty much moved out of the “baby” phase and is considered a juvenile. They are no longer dependent on their mothers for milk and rely solely on solid foods.  Although they still need their mothers and families for comfort and protection at times, three-year-old gorillas have more confidence to explore even further and spend long periods away from mom. They enjoy a new level of relatively carefree freedom while learning a few harder life lessons along the way.  Their personalities begin to become more defined during this stage.

Between six and 10 years old, gorillas are referred to as sub-adults. They are still not fully grown physically.  The carefree playfulness of being a juvenile is augmented by more adult-like interactions and experiences.  Sub-adults learn to shape breeding postures though regular wrestling and playing bouts, although females do not reproduce in the wild until they are about 10 years old.  By now, they have very distinctive personalities formed by previous experiences that will greatly influence their futures.  There is a clear hierarchy within gorilla society.  The pecking order is set based on many factors including the status of their mothers, intelligence, physical size and political savvy.  During the sub-adult stage, young gorillas work very hard to establish their social status through both positive interaction and aggression as they define their individuality even more.

Gladys, just relaxing (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys, just relaxing (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

By 10 years old, gorillas are considered adults.  Females may have migrated from their natal groups to improve their social life with a new family. They become new mothers and begin teaching young gorillas how to become adults.  At 10 years old, males most likely have been driven from their natal group by their father as they have become too rambunctious and challenging to the cohesiveness of the family.  Ten-year-old males are keenly interested in breeding, but are not quite mature or physically impressive enough to attract females so they go through an extra stage called “blackback”.  During this stage, blackbacks may live as solitary males or find other blackbacks to hang out with in a bachelor group, kind of like a gorilla YMCA.

By the age of 15 years, blackbacks have grown into their full size and are now called silverbacks.  All male gorillas become silverbacks.  Silverbacks, of course, get a silver coloration on their backs and develop large musculature on their heads.  This enhanced sagittal crest and large body size, combined with a silverback’s specific personality, can attract females.  Once a gorilla has reached a full silverback stage, he can acquire females in his group and start his own family.

Gladys is so excited about her birthday! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys is so excited about her birthday! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

So as Gladys reaches the juvenile gorilla stage milestone, it’s fun to review where she has been and look forward to what is in store on her long road to becoming an adult. We’ll watch her personality take further shape through positive and challenging life experiences. The bottom line is three years old is a great age to be a gorilla, especially when you have two younger sisters to go on the adventure with!

January 29, 2016   4 Comments

An Advanced Inquiry Program Graduate’s Look Back

The Zoo congratulates all of its recent graduates of the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP)! Did you know you can earn your Master’s Degree at the Zoo? Applications for the next year’s cohort are due on February 28.

Here is what one of our 2015 graduates, Faith Hilterbrand, has to say about the influence the AIP program has had on both her personal and professional life.

Guest blogger: Faith Hilterbrand (AIP-CZBG ‘15)

Have you ever had the feeling of being in just the right place, at just the right time?  I had been a junior high science teacher for seven years when Cincinnati Zoo’s Master’s program with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly appeared in my email.  I skimmed it, flagged it and thought “I’ll check this out later.”  So there it was, every day when I opened my email, and I finally gave it the attention it deserved.  As I began reading, idea after idea popped into my head and suddenly I was excited to apply.  Upon acceptance into the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) at the Cincinnati Zoo, a new challenge was thrown my way as I took a new position teaching high school life sciences.  I mean if you are going to test new waters, you may as well dive in!

The AIP quickly taught me how long it had been since I had felt the pressure of being a student.  I had to learn how to find balance while also still producing work that I was proud of at my job and in the classroom.  I often felt just like my students when faced with a new assignment, which helped me to be a better, more compassionate teacher.  The class meetings held at the Cincinnati Zoo were a time for learning and enthralling experiences, getting to see the animals up close and personal, but more importantly, I received support from classmates and instructors.  It was encouraging to know others felt as I did, and the collaborative approach to the coursework made a more significant impact on myself and each of our communities.  The focus on inquiry, scientific experimentation, and technical writing were all skills that were developed due to the coursework in the AIP and made me a more effective science teacher in preparing my students for their next academic step.  What I was not prepared for was the change it would evoke in my career aspirations and personal goals.

Learning about the Zoo's American burying beetle reintroduction project

Learning about the Zoo’s American burying beetle reintroduction project

The Advanced Inquiry Program has served as the cornerstone of change for my professional life.  The most amazing aspect is that I had zero intentions of that when I began the program.  The instructors and classmates that I was exposed to in Dragonfly, both at the Cincinnati Zoo and in online courses, were the source of inspiration that began to challenge my previously conceived career notions.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by people with a variety of ages, experiences, current work positions, and geographic locations, and I gained the courage to step outside the typical predetermined teaching path.  As I became acquainted with fellow Dragonflyer’s, I realized my own desire for professional growth and change.

Presenting results from a wetland inquiry with fellow AIP students

Presenting results from a wetland inquiry with fellow AIP students

That is the beauty of the Advanced Inquiry Program – I was able to tailor my learning to meet my professional needs and open new doors in the future.  I travelled the world, created my own internship, and gained invaluable knowledge and networking opportunities that connected education with conservation.  I knew moving forward that my teaching background would prove instrumental in taking the fork in my career path instead of staying the course.  As I have taken a year to reflect, explore, and dream of my next position, it is all the people associated with the AIP and Project Dragonfly that have encouraged and challenged me to follow my own path.

Meeting a cinereous vulture following a field course in Mongolia

Meeting a cinereous vulture following a field course in Mongolia

January 7, 2016   1 Comment

Keeping Up with Gorilla Conservation in the Republic of Congo

Elle, the 50th gorilla born at the Cincinnati Zoo  (Photo: DJJAM)

Elle, the 50th gorilla born at the Cincinnati Zoo (Photo: DJJAM)

Along with celebrating the 50th gorilla birth this year and announcing big plans to expand the popular Gorilla World habitat, the Cincinnati Zoo will be celebrating 15 years of wild gorilla conservation work with the Nouabale Ndoki Project (NNP) in 2016.

Mbeli Bai logo

This project, located in the Republic of Congo, umbrellas several very important efforts that help critically endangered wild western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). The Zoo’s original funding for NNP went to the Mbeli Bai Study, the longest running field research study on this species of gorilla.  Researchers gather valuable demographic information needed to define what gorillas require to survive as their threatened rainforest habitats continue to shrink. Keep up with the latest news from the Mbeli Bai study by visiting the new web site and blog, following their Facebook page, and reading the most recent newsletter.

Meet Hercules and his mother, Henna, two of the many gorillas that frequent Mbeli Bai (Photo: Mbeli Bai Study)

Meet Hercules and his mother, Henna, two of the many gorillas that frequent Mbeli Bai (Photo: Mbeli Bai Study)

Over the years, the Zoo increased its contributions to other gorilla-related projects in this area, including the “Mondika” gorilla tracking study site and an education outreach program for local communities called “Club Ebobo”. Ebobo is the word for gorilla in Lingala, the local language.

As we celebrate the expansion of our gorilla family and facility here at the Zoo, it is important we recognize and celebrate the fine work being done in the field to help conserve this flagship species.

Gladys and Mona enjoying the unseasonably warm weather we're having this month (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Gladys and Mona enjoying the unseasonably warm weather we’re having this month (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

December 14, 2015   3 Comments