Gorilla Facts

Similar … but Different

This gentle giant fascinates because of its strength and intelligence. The name “gorilla” means hairy person and was coined by an explorer from ancient Carthage almost 2,500 years ago. Gorillas are the largest of the primates. An adult male can weigh 350–600 pounds. They have thick, springy hair covering most of their bodies. However, adults do not have hair on the face, chest, palms or the soles of their feet. They can live more than 50 years.

There are an estimated 125,000 gorillas among the four subspecies. The Louisville Zoo gorilla troop is comprised of captive-born Western lowland gorillas — the subspecies found in almost all the world’s zoos.

The Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) are also the most plentiful and relatively widespread subspecies in the wild with a population of 110,500 animals. They are located across the political borders of six countries in west Equatorial Africa. Almost 80 percent are in the Congo and Gabon, with a few troops also in Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Nigeria.

An estimated 10,500 Eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla graueri) are located slightly east of the Congo Basin in Central African Republic and Zaire. The extremely rare Mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) numbers only 500 and is concentrated in the volcanic regions of Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire.

The biggest threat to gorillas is the loss of land due to human development. Gorillas need large areas of dense forest. Lumbering and farming compete for space and war refugees create additional demands on limited resources. Poaching for bush meat or trophies is yet another threat.

  • Gorillas can stand on their legs but they walk using their legs and “hands” in a four-footed manner, which is an easier way to balance the heavy weight of their head and upper body. They use the hand like a foot and walk on the knuckles.
  • While people have arms equal in length to their legs, gorillas’ arms are proportionately different. An average male gorilla is six inches shorter than an average man but its arms are about a foot longer. A gorilla can use its feet to grab.
  • Although its head is larger, a gorilla’s brain is smaller than a human’s.
  • The bones and muscles of gorillas and humans are similar but the body shape is different. The gorilla’s stomach is much larger than the chest, permitting the gorilla to eat and store bulky, vegetative food.
  • Gorilla groups can be composed of different social forms. Family troops are lead by an adult male, commonly identified as a “silverback.” Although some groups may be all male, one adult will be the lead, or the “silverback.” The troop spends most of its time in search of the 40 pounds of leaves, stems and roots each adult needs. At night they build nests for sleeping, sometimes in trees, sometimes on the ground.
  • They are methodical in search of food and they are smart enough to remember when and where the most desirable food ripens. They savor their meals, smacking lips together and grumbling with contentment.
  • The physical parts and mechanics of a gorilla’s hand are similar to a human’s but it is twice as big.
  • A baby gorilla may weigh only 4.5 pounds at birth but grow to become a 400-pound adult. A male gorilla can weigh twice as much as a female.
  • The faces of gorillas are different from one another, just like humans.
  • Gorillas are gentle animals. They treat each other with kindness and consideration.