Introduction to Gorilla Gestures
When I visited the San Francisco Zoo as a casual observer after having
worked with signing gorillas Koko and Michael, I was struck by the
amount of gestural communication used by the zoo gorillas. Some of it
resembled the untaught gestures or even taught signs I had seen the
signing gorillas use. Many questions came to mind: What does it mean?
What are the processes involved in developing these gestures? What kind
of communication is universal for all gorillas and what is individually
After observing the zoo gorilla group, it became apparent
that "species-typical" expressions such as slapping, clapping, and
chestbeating develop quite differently in each individual. Gorillas also
create some gestures that seem to be unique to the individual. Other
gestures are shared by several, but not all, individuals in a group. The
gestures of different individuals at the same ages vary both in type and
quantity and the same individual's gestures vary over time and in accord
with changing social conditions. Zoo gorillas as well as the
sign-instructed gorillas create gestures of an iconic (depictive)
The purpose of my research has been to describe the variation
as well as the similarities in the gesturing of gorillas, to explore the
physical and functional properties of these gestures, and to learn why
and how they have developed in this particular captive group of
gorillas. Beyond this, I am interested in the cognitive abilities of
gorillas that make such gestures possible, and in the evolutionary
significance of the way gorillas create communication with each other.
Working definition of gesture for this study:
Any discrete non-locomotory limb or head movement that
appears to be communicative, whether by sight, sound or touch, that
occurs when gorillas are in proximity of each other and engaged in
social action immediately before, after, or during the movements.
Through the links below you can explore some of my findings:
gorillas invent novel gestures?
My earliest research focused on interaction between Kubie and
Zura, who did the majority of the gesturing in the group. I found three
modes of reception:
Some gestures appear to be
Gestures do not appear only singly, but in Gestural
exchanges. Gorillas at other zoos create their own gestures and also
use some of the same gestures as the gorillas at the San Francisco Zoo.
You can view gorillas using gestures at the