2006-01-06 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

by Stephen Yaeger


The recently released film, “King Kong,” gives me the inspiration to write today’s column. I remember the first time I saw the original film. I was about six or seven years old. My brother and his friend took me to the Culver Theater on McDonald and 18th Avenues in Brooklyn. I spent most of the time hiding under the seat. In time, however, the film became one of my all-time favorites—and the new version is absolutely fantastic; a must-see film. But it is a fantasy—science fiction. So let’s get on with the truth about gorillas.

In 1932, Merion C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack came up with an idea for a movie about a giant ape they called “Kong.” The creature may have been based on ancient myths about giant gorillas. Throughout the world there have always been stories and “sightings” of strange creatures. In Asia it’s the Abominable Snowman, in Canada it’s Sasquatch, in Australia it’s Yowie, in the northwest US it’s Big Foot and in Rockaway it’s Harry the Giant Sandcrab. These stories belong to the study of cryptozoology (=investigation of animals with no proof of their existence).

In 1935, a German paleontologist, Ralph von Koenigswald discovered a tooth in a cave in China. He identified it as a molar belonging to an ancient primate. He placed the creature in a new genus, Gigantopithicus (gy-GAN-toe-PITH-a-gus =giant ape) and species, blacki (after a friend’s name). Since then three jaw bones and many more teeth have been found. Based on measurements and dating techniques it has been determined that Gigantopithicus lived 100,000 years ago. It may have stood some 10 feet tall and weighed about 1,200 pounds.

Although natives were familiar with a strange man-like creature in the African jungles for centuries, Europeans never believed the stories. The creatures that the natives described just didn’t make sense. It was not until 1847 that the Lowland gorilla was discovered and the Mountain gorilla was discovered in 1903. (Funny how natives know about and see different plants, animals and land for centuries, but Europeans take credit for the discovery.)

Many people wrongly refer to gorillas as monkeys. And some humans are called gorillas. But gorillas are apes and humans are, well, humans. Humans and apes both belong to the Order Primates. Apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (a smaller, sub-species of chimpanzee) and orangutans.

Lesser apes include gibbons and siamangs. The complete classification of gorillas is: Kingdom, Animalia ; Phylum, Chordata ; Subphylum: Vertebrata ; Class, Mammalia ; Order, Primates (at this point humans take another path), Family, Pongidae ; Genus, Gorilla ; and Species, gorilla . There are three Sub-species: gorilla , the Western Lowland gorilla; graueri , the Eastern Lowland gorilla and beringei, the Mountain gorilla.

Gorillas are covered with coarse, black hair except on their chests, armpits, palms, fingers, face and bottom of their feet. An average male has a bulky body with a short, broad trunk, wide chest and shoulders. It stands at a height of 5 ½ feet. It may never make a basketball team, but with its strength it sure makes for a good wrestler.

A female has less bulk and is about a foot smaller. The head is large with a short muzzle, small dark-brown eyes and small ears. Each gorilla has a unique nose print allowing it to be identified much like our own fingerprints can identify us. Older males have a prominent crown on the top of the skull and those over 10 years old have a silvery-gray back giving them the name silverback.

The muscular arms are longer than the short, thick legs allowing the gorilla to typically travel on its knuckles in a stooped position. (You can try walking that way and see how far you get. But do it in private otherwise you might have a problem explaining your strange behavior.) The gorilla lives in a close-knit group (band or troop) with a dominant male in charge.

Younger males, females and young make up the group. The territory a troop of gorillas covers is about 4 to 15 ½ square miles. Within this territory the troop will feed on roots, berries, twigs, leaves, bark, stalks, buds, ferns and other plant material. Most of the water that they need comes from the food they eat.

Feeding takes place in the early morning hours followed by a resting period; in the afternoon feeding resumes. In the evening females and juveniles will build nests of twigs and leaves in trees where they will spend the night. Young gorillas will sleep with their moms. The males, being larger and more massive, will build their nests on the ground.

Gorillas are very quiet animals, but do communicate with each other when necessary. They may grunt, growl, hoot, roar, bark, whine (I know one or two humans who do the same thing.) or otherwise get another’s attention. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions of gorillas, they are very shy and will avoid any confrontation with another animal. When threatened a gorilla will stand up and beat his chest, lunge, step sideways, throw something, beat the ground, rip up plants, stare, and even stick out its tongue.

Gorillas are able to mate at 10 – 12 years. Mating takes place at any time of the year. Gestation is about 8 to 9 1/2 months with a single baby being born. Females may give birth to 3 babies during their lifetime. The infant will suckle for the first 3 years and remain with mom for 3 – 4 years.

Quiz: King Kong is fictional, but do you know the name of a real-live gorilla that was famous at one time? (Hint: He was a member of a circus.)

Questions/comments/suggestions? E-mail Steve: Drawingon science@aol.com

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