October 13, 2005

Gorilla Technology

Even at its best, it's still not that impressive.

David Goldenberg

Last month, researchers documented gorillas using tools in the wild for the first time. In the Journal of the Public Library of Science (one of the few open-access major scientific journals), scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society recorded two separate instances of lowland gorillas using branches for stability as they navigated and foraged in swampy land.

Gorilla Technology
Courtesy PLoS
Gorilla tool use at its finest.
Since every other great ape (chimpanzee, bonobo, and orangutan) has previously been shown to use tools in the wild, it was widely claimed that this most recent discovery means that gorillas are as smart as the rest of them. As an accompanying article in the PLoS claims, the scientists "reveal that gorillas are just as resourceful as the other great apes."

As a former primatology student, I sensed that this discovery was a big deal, but I also knew that in the research community, gorillas weren't going to shrug off their reputation for torpidity that easily. So I called Craig Stanford, the USC professor who runs the BIGAPE project in Bwindi-Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Because Bwindi is the only place in the world where chimpanzees and gorillas coexist, I figured Stanford would have a unique perspective on the comparative technological skills of the various species.

"It was great that someone finally showed gorillas are not the cows of the primate world," says Stanford, who spends much of his fieldwork time following the massive animals around. "I was definitely surprised." But he is not yet ready to put any gorillas on equal footing with the chimps he studies. "Chimps will do in one morning what gorillas will do in two or three weeks."

"I think it would be easy to overhype [the discovery]," Stanford says. "Gorillas are animals that we never thought had the intellect to use tools. In terms of complexity, though, they are still light-years away from what chimps use." For example, when a chimp raids a termite mound, he accomplishes several technological feats not yet seen in gorillas: He selects a specific tool, modifies that tool, and uses different tools for different purposes (as when chimps use a big branch to bash a mound and then a slender stick—stripped of its branches—to pull out the termites.) "Complex tool use means thinking two or three steps ahead," says Stanford. "There's no evidence gorillas do that."

"It's cool," adds Stanford of the new findings. "But it's pretty minimal."

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Article by David Goldenberg

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