The largest of the great apes, gorillas aren't as savage as they were once thought to be. We now know how closely related we are to our primate cousins.

A band of gorillas spend a lot of their day socialising

A band of gorillas spend a lot of their day socialising


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Gorilla


A type of great ape, there are two species of mostly herbivorous gorillas, split into several subspecies. Gorillas are restricted to relatively small patches of central African forest and are identified by their lowland or mountainous habitat. They can live up to 40 years old in the wild and up to 50 in captivity.

Every gorilla has a covering of thick black hair, except for the alpha male silverbacks, and their long ams are used for knuckle-walking in a quadrupedal fashion. Bipedalism is restricted by their powerful size and short legs.

Attenborough on Gorillas

Bad Reputation

"Gorilla" comes from the Greek meaning "wild hairy people" while the original binomial name Gorilla savagii, derived from its finder Thomas Savage, cemented the thought that gorillas were a savage, horrific creature. This misguided reputation inspired stories such as King Kong.

The Human Link

Despite the superficial similarities in the anatomy between gorillas and humans, the notion that we were somehow related took a long time to sink in. We now know that gorillas are genetically very similar to humans, with only chimpanzees and bonobos being more similar. We share around 95-99% of our DNA.

A silverback mountain gorilla at Parc National des Volcans

A silverback mountain gorilla at Parc National des Volcans


Gorillas feed mostly on shoots and leaves, supplemented by what fruit they can find. Lowland gorillas have also been known to eat insects, like ants.

Spending most of their time on the ground as adults, young gorillas may venture into the trees to play. Although the great bulk of the adults restricts off-ground activity, they will make nests in low branches.

Gorillas are highly intelligent animals. There is evidence of tool use in the wild population, with reported use of sticks being used to gauge the depth of a swamp and logs or rocks used as hammers to smash open nuts.

Furthermore, a remarkable gorilla called Koko learned over 1000 signs in American Sign Language and understood around 2000 words in spoken English.

Find Out More

Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was a prominent American primatologist whose work studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda improved awareness and promoted the protection of the species.

Fossey's research revolutionised the study of gorillas in academic circles while her book Gorillas in the Mist inspired the Sigourney Weaver film of the same name and brought her into the public conscious.

Fossey was murdered in her cabin in 1985, and while the case remains open, her untimely death only served to promote her cause and her legacy is survived by the charities and initiative she helped to establish.

Quick Facts

  • The oldest gorilla is Columbus Zoo and Aquarium-resident Colo, who is 57 years old.
  • Apart from humans, leopards seem to be the only other predator of gorilla.
  • The IUCN Red List has eastern gorilla as endangered and the mountain gorilla as critically endangered.