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Gorillas form complex societies just like humans: Study


PTI London
Updated: 10-07-2019 13:02 IST
Gorillas form complex societies just like humans: Study

Gorillas have more complex social structures than previously thought -- from lifetime bonds forged between distant relations to tiers of old friends -- with striking parallels to human societies, according to a study unveiled Wednesday that suggests deep roots of human social evolution. The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that the origins of our own social systems stretch back to the common ancestor of humans and gorillas, rather than arising from the "social brain" of hominins after diverging from other primates.

The study used over six years of data from two research sites in the Republic of Congo, where scientists documented the social exchanges of hundreds of western lowland gorillas. "Studying the social lives of gorillas can be tricky," said Robin Morrison, a biological anthropologist from the University of Cambridge in the UK.

"Gorillas spend most of their time in dense forest, and it can take years for them to habituate to humans," said Morrison said. Most of the study's observational data was collected from the Mbeli Bai clearing where scientists have recorded gorilla life stories for over 20 years.

Gorillas live in small family units -- a dominant male and several females with offspring -- or as solitary male "bachelors". Morrison used statistical algorithms to reveal patterns of interaction between family groups and individuals in the datasets.

By analysing the frequency and length of "associations" , she found hitherto undetermined social layers. Beyond immediate family, there was a tier of regular interaction -- an average of 13 gorillas -- that maps closely to "dispersed extended family" in traditional human societies eg aunts; grandparents; cousins.

Beyond that, a further tier of association involved an average of 39 gorillas, similar to an "aggregated group" that spends time together without necessarily being closely related. "An analogy to early human populations might be a tribe or small settlement, like a village," said Morrison.

Where dominant males ("silverbacks") were half-siblings they were more likely to be in the same "tribe". However, over 80 per cent of the close associations detected were between more distantly related -- or even apparently unrelated -- silverbacks.

"Females spend time in multiple groups throughout their lives, making it possible for males not closely related to grow up in the same natal group, similar to step-brothers," said Morrison. "The bonds that form may lead to these associations we see as adults. If we think of these associations in a human-centric way, the time spent in each other's company might be analogous to an old friendship," she said.

Occasionally, when lots of young males "disperse" from their families at the same time but are not yet ready to strike out on their own, they form "all-male bachelor groups" for a while. The researchers suggest this could be another bond-forming period.

The team uncovered hints of an even higher social tier of "periodic aggregations", similar to an annual gathering or festival based around "fruiting events", although these are too infrequent to detect with certainty from this study's data. Morrison and colleagues argue that sporadic fruiting schedules of the gorillas' preferred foods may be one reason why they -- and consequently maybe we -- evolved this "hierarchical social modularity".

"Western gorillas often move many kilometres a day to feed from a diverse range of plants that rarely and unpredictably produce fruit. This food is easier to find if they collaborate when foraging," said Morrison. "Gorillas spend a lot of their early life in the family group, helping to train them for foraging. Other long-term social bonds and networks would further aid cooperation and collective memory for tracking down food that's hard to find," she said.

A small number of mammal species have a similar social structure to humans. These species also rely on "idiosyncratic" food sources -- whether forest elephants hunting irregular fruitings, or the mercurial fish schools sought by dolphins -- and all have spatial memory centres in their brain to rival those of humans.

Before now, the species on this short list were evolutionarily distant from humans. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, live in small territorial groups with fluctuating alliances that are highly aggressive -- often violent -- with neighbours.

One theory for human society is that it required the evolution of a particularly large and sophisticated "social brain" unique to the hominin lineage. However, Morrison and colleagues say the addition of gorillas to this list suggests the simplest explanation may be that our social complexity evolved much earlier, and is instead merely absent from the chimpanzee lineage.

"The scaling ratio between each social tier in gorillas matches those observed not just in early human societies, but also baboons, toothed whales and elephants," added Morrison. "Our findings provide yet more evidence that these endangered animals are deeply intelligent and sophisticated, and that we humans are perhaps not quite as special as we might like to think," she said.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)