Gorillas have been found to show territorial behaviour – and it could reveal important clues on the social evolution of humans, scientists believe.
Researchers studying eight western lowland gorilla groups have discovered that the primates command “ownership” of their home ranges, the areas in which they live and move.
But these animals can also “peacefully co-exist” with their neighbouring groups while claiming “exclusive use” of areas close to the central hub of their home range.
The researchers said the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, contradict widely-held belief that these primates were non-territorial.
Dr Jacob Dunn, a reader in evolutionary biology at Anglia Ruskin University and one of the study authors, said: “This new research changes what we know about how groups of gorillas interact and has implications for what we understand about human evolution.
“Almost all comparative research into human evolution compares us to chimpanzees, with the extreme territorial violence observed in chimpanzees used as evidence that their behaviour provides an evolutionary basis for warfare among humans.
“Our research broadens this out and shows instead just how closely we compare to our next nearest relatives.
“Gorillas’ core areas of dominance and large zones of mutual tolerance could help with our understanding of the social evolution of early human populations, showing both the capacity for violence in defending a specific territory and the between-group affiliations necessary for wider social cooperation.”
Scientists monitored the movements of 113 gorillas at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo, with cameras across 36 feeding spots.
The team found the gorillas’ movements were strongly influenced by the location of their neighbours, suggesting these animals may avoid the central hubs of other groups’ home ranges to prevent conflict.
The authors said this behaviour is markedly different to chimpanzees, which display extreme territorial-based violence.
Lead author Dr Robin Morrison, who carried out the study during her PhD at the University of Cambridge, said: “Our findings indicate that there is an understanding among gorillas of ‘ownership’ of areas and the location of neighbouring groups restricts their movement.
“Gorillas don’t impose hard boundaries like chimpanzees.
“Instead, gorilla groups may have regions of priority or even exclusive use close to the centre of their home range, which could feasibly be defended by physical aggression.
“At the same time groups can overlap and even peacefully co-exist in other regions of their ranges.
“The flexible system of defending and sharing space implies the presence of a complex social structure in gorillas.”