Public Release: 

Granny gorilla knows best

New Scientist

A CAPTIVE female gorilla has been spotted teaching her daughter how to tend to her newborn. Gorilla mothers are often seen teaching their young to walk and climb, but primatologists believe this is the first report of a mother instructing her daughter on baby care. The daughter, an 11-year-old western lowland gorilla called Ione, had neglected her first baby, which her keepers raised.

So for several days after the birth of her second baby at San Diego Wild Animal Park, the keepers and primatologist Masayuki Nakamichi of Osaka University in Japan kept a close eye on her. Initially, Ione simply left her baby on the ground in front of her 21-year-old mother, Alberta, who picked him up and handed him back. When Ione made no move to take the baby, Alberta moved closer pushing the newborn into his mother's face until she took him.

Variations on this sequence occurred several times in the first two days (Primates, DOI: 10.1007/s10329-003-0061-9). By the third and fourth day, Ione was holding the baby. Sometimes, Alberta would hold the baby's arm, and Ione would hand him over, but when the baby nestled into its grandmother, Ione quickly took him back. With time, Alberta became less involved. Nakamichi argues that Alberta's actions were attempts to teach Ione appropriate maternal behaviour. "These behaviours are subtle. It takes an acute observer to spot them," says James Moore of the University of California in San Diego. Sadly Ione died when the baby was 10 months old, but another female gorilla successfully fostered the baby.

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Author: Stephen Leahy
New Scientist issue: 15th November 2003

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