Physical maturation, life-history classes and age estimates of free-ranging western gorillas—insights from Mbeli Bai, Republic of Congo



Physical maturation and life-history parameters are seen as evolutionary adaptations to different ecological and social conditions. Comparison of life-history patterns of closely related species living in diverse environments helps to evaluate the validity of these assumptions but empirical data are lacking. The two gorilla species exhibit substantial differences in their environment, which allows investigation into the role of increased frugivory in shaping western gorilla life histories. We present behavioral and morphological data on western gorilla physical maturation and life-history parameters from a 12.5-year study at Mbeli Bai, a forest clearing in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in northern Congo. We assign photographs of known individuals to different life-history classes and propose new age boundaries for life-history classes in western gorillas, which can be used and tested at other western gorilla research sites. Our results show that western gorillas are weaned at a later age compared with mountain gorillas and indicate slower physical maturation of immatures. These findings support the risk-aversion hypothesis for more frugivorous species. However, our methods need to be applied and tested with other gorilla populations. The slow life histories of western gorillas could have major consequences for social structure, mortality patterns and population growth rates that will affect recovery from population crashes of this critically endangered species. We emphasize that long-term studies can provide crucial demographic and life-history data that improve our understanding of life-history evolution and adaptation and help to refine conservation strategies. Am. J. Primatol. 71:106–119, 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.