Gorillas in the Mist

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey is an excellent account of her thirteen years studying gorillas in the Virungas Mountains. Gorillas in the Mist shows the public that gorillas were not the evil monsters that we have come to think of them as. Through careful research Dain Fossey was able to bring an understanding to the eyes of the public about gorilla behavior, social structure, and the gorilla’s individualism.

Dian Fossey started her research in September of 1963. Fossey’s original goals were to meet the mountain gorillas of Mt. Mikeno in the Congo, as well as meet with Dr. Leaky. While her goal was to do a short-term study, but after meeting Dr. Leaky she was persuaded to undergo a long-term study. Her first attempt at this study ended badly; she fell into a hole not more than one day into her study and broke her leg. She would return to the states and then after three years return to Africa. She returned in 1966, and began her study of the gorillas of the Virungas at the Kabara Research site. A year later Fossey was pushed from Zaire by civil war and never returned to the Zaire side of the mountain range. This political unrest effected her study of the gorillas greatly. She had already established her presence to the gorilla groups, and she was able to approach the groups through the social bond she had created. She was now pushed to the Rwanda side of the mountains, and once again set up her research center and named this new site Karisoke. This movement away from the gorilla groups she had first started to study greatly slowed her research. Fossey was forced to reestablish her presence to these new groups, and was now forced to focus on reestablishing social bonds rather then data collecting research. From this new site Dian Fossey would do the bulk of her famous gorilla research for nearly thirteen years.

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The work Fossey was about to under take was by comparison as important to the scientific study of primates as Jane Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees of the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. Jane Goodall had proven that chimpanzees could learn to use tools, and that became one of her most important discoveries. Dian Fossey’s work with the gorillas also had many new discoveries equally important to the study of primates as Jane Goodall. Dian Fossey first established family groups, which she simply referred to as “Groups”. She proved that gorillas have social bonds that are very family oriented. The gorilla groups consisted of as many as two to twenty one members. These groups consisted of one dominating male Silverback gorilla; some times a few females, and possibly some Blackback males. Unlike popular assumption the dominant Silverback is not always the only Silverback in any one group, but is always the strongest and largest Silverback within the group. The dominating Silverback is usually born into his group and becomes the dominant male after the old dominating male Silverback has died. In some cases he may establish himself as the groups dominating Silverback by assuming the duties of the old dominating male only if this old dominating male is to weak, ill, or old to act as the group leader. The dominant Silverback is the leader of his group. He guides his group throughout the mountains, and he also provides protection for the younger and weaker members of the group. The dominant Silverback has breeding rights to all the females of the group. The Silverback is also the first to breed with the females of the group and often the only to breed; this insures the Silverback that the next generation will be of his seed. The order within the group’s structure is maintained by this dominant Silverback as well. This social structure is very important to a group’s survival.

The female gorillas have a dominance pattern as well. The most dominant female is usually the one that has been in the group the longest, and spends most of her time grooming the dominant silverback. Fossey stated that groups without a dominant Silverback leader faired far worse, because they were unable to locate food as well as protect themselves from other groups. Throughout her studies Fossey’s had observed numerous groups of gorillas ranging from a lone Silver or Blackback to groups as big as twenty-one with as many as two Silverbacks.

Within the group some members may or may not be related to one another. Dian Fossey documented this aspect of group relations very closely. Often a female gorillas biological Father would mate with her when she reached sexual maturity sometimes to show the Silverbacks dominance. In some cases because it was the only breeding opportunity within the group. Often groups getting to the point of having limited breeding resources would interbreed within their group to pass on genes. The dominant Silverback would then try and acquire new females from another rival group. These interactions often result in a group losing members, or even acquiring new members. Sometimes these interactions between groups ended in bloody battles between the dominant members within the groups. More often then not, it is the dominant Silverback that will try and intimidate the rival groups Silverback(s) and then take a female through intimidation.

The gorillas that Dian Fossey studied all showed a gentle side often not seen from unhabituated gorillas. Dian Fossey stated that gorillas need for contact between members gave them a peaceful way about them. Grooming is a form of contact between group members that is not so much a way of keeping the fur of gorillas clean but a vital social skill that is used as a form of contact between members. This contact between members of a group seemed to comfort the gorillas, and add to the group’s cohesion. Through numerous contacts the younger members of the group often groomed Fossey. We often are lead to think of gorillas as a fearful beast that would kill a human at the first site of them. From this research Fossey was able to abolish this myth. Why would a man-killing beast initiate contact with a human only to comfort her?

Gorillas are very playful as well. The young have a strong sense of curiosity that often brought the gorillas to Dian Fossey. Throughout the book the impression I had of gorillas left me as she described the way these comical interactions took place. My impression of gorillas as a terrifying beast was soon replaced with an understanding of gorilla behavior and a new impression of a gentle giant.

Dian Fossey’s love for the gorillas is very apparent throughout the book. She goes as far as to name the members of each group she comes across, giving the gorillas an almost human-like personality. This helps to shape an image of each gorilla throughout the text and to diminish the popular misconception of gorillas. I believe the popular impression of gorillas being terrifying killers was an important aspect that shaped the writing of the book Gorillas in the Mist.

I believe Dian Fossey printed her findings into a simple and easy to read text so that just about every person that could read could get the meaning out of it. The title itself adds to the meaning of the book. Gorillas have been kept in the mist forever. There has never been a study done before like this to open the public’s eyes to this endangered species. The way she writes is almost child like. Making it very easy to understand as well as making the text enjoyable to read. The tone she uses throughout the book also helps the reader to keep pushing through the text even if she sometimes gets carried away with scientific terminology. Dian Fossey skips about from chapter-to-chapter introducing the reader to groups and individual gorillas that she has yet to define. The text is very simple to understand, but this “jumpy” type of writing makes it a lot harder to follow the groups in any pattern.

In the appeal to make this an easy and very understandable book Dian Fossey even included in the back of the book scientific notations on various things that were mentioned in the text but not elaborated on; gorilla vocalizations, food types, and parasites to only name a few. I believe that this book was not so much on gorillas behavior, and the need to write about the research Dian Fossey had done, but a book to open the world’s eyes to this animal.

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