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Concept: Western Lowland Gorilla


BACKGROUND: The only known albino gorilla, named Snowflake, was a male wild born individual from Equatorial Guinea who lived at the Barcelona Zoo for almost 40 years. He was diagnosed with non-syndromic oculocutaneous albinism, i.e. white hair, light eyes, pink skin, photophobia and reduced visual acuity. Despite previous efforts to explain the genetic cause, this is still unknown. Here, we study the genetic cause of his albinism and making use of whole genome sequencing data we find a higher inbreeding coefficient compared to other gorillas. RESULTS: We successfully identified the causal genetic variant for Snowflake’s albinism, a non-synonymous single nucleotide variant located in a transmembrane region of SLC45A2. This transporter is known to be involved in oculocutaneous albinism type 4 (OCA4) in humans. We provide experimental evidence that shows that this amino acid replacement alters the membrane spanning capability of this transmembrane region. Finally, we provide a comprehensive study of genome-wide patterns of autozygogosity revealing that Snowflake’s parents were related, being this the first report of inbreeding in a wild born Western lowland gorilla. CONCLUSIONS: In this study we demonstrate how the use of whole genome sequencing can be extended to link genotype and phenotype in non-model organisms and it can be a powerful tool in conservation genetics (e.g., inbreeding and genetic diversity) with the expected decrease in sequencing cost.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Genotype, Evolution, Population genetics, Oculocutaneous albinism, Western Lowland Gorilla


HIV-1, the cause of AIDS, is composed of four phylogenetic lineages, groups M, N, O, and P, each of which resulted from an independent cross-species transmission event of simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) infecting African apes. Although groups M and N have been traced to geographically distinct chimpanzee communities in southern Cameroon, the reservoirs of groups O and P remain unknown. Here, we screened fecal samples from western lowland (n = 2,611), eastern lowland (n = 103), and mountain (n = 218) gorillas for gorilla SIV (SIVgor) antibodies and nucleic acids. Despite testing wild troops throughout southern Cameroon (n = 14), northern Gabon (n = 16), the Democratic Republic of Congo (n = 2), and Uganda (n = 1), SIVgor was identified at only four sites in southern Cameroon, with prevalences ranging from 0.8-22%. Amplification of partial and full-length SIVgor sequences revealed extensive genetic diversity, but all SIVgor strains were derived from a single lineage within the chimpanzee SIV (SIVcpz) radiation. Two fully sequenced gorilla viruses from southwestern Cameroon were very closely related to, and likely represent the source population of, HIV-1 group P. Most of the genome of a third SIVgor strain, from central Cameroon, was very closely related to HIV-1 group O, again pointing to gorillas as the immediate source. Functional analyses identified the cytidine deaminase APOBEC3G as a barrier for chimpanzee-to-gorilla, but not gorilla-to-human, virus transmission. These data indicate that HIV-1 group O, which spreads epidemically in west central Africa and is estimated to have infected around 100,000 people, originated by cross-species transmission from western lowland gorillas.

Concepts: Virus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gorilla, Ape, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Simian immunodeficiency virus, Western Lowland Gorilla


Many nonhuman primates produce food-associated vocalizations upon encountering or ingesting particular food. Concerning the great apes, only food-associated vocalizations of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) have been studied in detail, providing evidence that these vocalizations can be produced flexibly in relation to a variety of factors, such as the quantity and quality of food and/or the type of audience. Only anecdotal evidence exists of eastern (Gorilla beringei) and western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) producing food-associated vocalizations, termed singing or humming. To enable a better understanding of the context in which these calls are produced, we investigated and compared the vocal behavior of two free-ranging groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla) at Mondika, Republic of Congo. Our results show that (a) food-associated call production occurs only during feeding and not in other contexts; (b) calling is not uniformly distributed across age and sex classes; © calls are only produced during feeding on specific foods; and (d) normally just one individual gives calls during group feeding sessions, however, certain food types elicit simultaneous calling of two or more individuals. Our findings provide new insight into the vocal abilities of gorillas but also carry larger implications for questions concerning vocal variability among the great apes. Food-associated calls of nonhuman primates have been shown to be flexible in terms of when they are used and who they are directed at, making them interesting vocalizations from the viewpoint of language evolution. Food-associated vocalizations in great apes can offer new opportunities to investigate the phylogenetic development of vocal communication within the primate lineage and can possibly contribute novel insights into the origins of human language.

Concepts: Human, Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Bonobo, Western Lowland Gorilla


Personality plays an important role in determining human health and risk of earlier death. However, the mechanisms underlying those associations remain unknown. We moved away from testing hypotheses rooted in the activities of modern humans, by testing whether these associations are ancestral and one side of a trade-off between fitness costs and benefits. We examined personality predictors of survival in 283 captive western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) followed for 18 years. We found that of four gorilla personality dimensions-dominance, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness-extraversion was associated with longer survival. This effect could not be explained by demographic information or husbandry practices. These findings suggest that understanding how extraversion and other personality domains influence longevity requires investigating the evolutionary bases of this association in nonhuman primates and other species.

Concepts: Human, Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Homininae, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla


Food cleaning is widespread in the animal kingdom, and a recent report confirmed that (amongst other behaviours) wild western lowland gorillas also show food cleaning. The authors of this report conclude that this behaviour, based on its distribution patterns, constitutes a potential candidate for culture. While different conceptualisations of culture exist, some more and some less reliant on behavioural form copying, all of them assign a special role to social learning processes in explaining potentially cultural behaviours. Here we report the results of an experiment that tested to what extent food cleaning behaviour in a group of captive Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) relies on social learning processes. Subjects were provided with clean and dirty apples. When they were provided with dirty apples, all subjects showed evidence of food cleaning in at least 75% of trials. Preferred cleaning techniques differed between individuals, four out of five of subjects expressed a behaviour analogous to that reported in wild conspecifics. Given this occurrence of food cleaning in a culturally unconnected population of gorillas, we conclude that social learning is unlikely to play a central role in the emergence of the food cleaning behavioural form in Western lowland gorillas; instead, placing a greater emphasis on individual learning of food cleaning’s behavioural form.

Concepts: Psychology, Culture, Hominidae, Gorilla, Behavior, Gorillas, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla


Play behaviour reinforces social affiliation in several primate species, including humans. Via a comparative approach, we tested the hypothesis that play dynamics in a group of lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) are different from those in a group of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) as a reflection of their difference in social affiliation and agonistic support. We selected one group of lowland gorillas and one of chimpanzees, hosted at the ZooParc de Beauval (France), managed in a similar way and living in similar enclosures. The same observers video-collected and analysed data on play behaviour in both groups, by applying identical methodological procedures. Data showed that adult play was less frequent in the group of gorillas compare to chimpanzees. Polyadic play, which involves more than two players and is characterised by the most uncertain outcome, was also less frequent in gorillas than chimpanzees. Play sessions were more unbalanced (more unidirectional patterns by one of the player towards the other) in chimpanzees than in gorillas but in the latter play escalated more frequently into serious aggression. Play asymmetry in the gorilla group increased as the number of players increased, which explains why gorillas limited their polyadic playful interactions. In conclusion, our findings on the study groups of apes can be a valuable starting point to expand the study of social play in the great apes to evaluate if inter-individual affiliative relationships really account for the differences in play distribution and dynamics.

Concepts: Human, Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla


All non-human great apes are endangered in the wild, and it is therefore important to gain an understanding of their demography and genetic diversity. Whole genome assembly projects have provided an invaluable foundation for understanding genetics in all four genera, but to date genetic studies of multiple individuals within great ape species have largely been confined to mitochondrial DNA and a small number of other loci. Here, we present a genome-wide survey of genetic variation in gorillas using a reduced representation sequencing approach, focusing on the two lowland subspecies. We identify 3,006,670 polymorphic sites in 14 individuals: 12 western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and 2 eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). We find that the two species are genetically distinct, based on levels of heterozygosity and patterns of allele sharing. Focusing on the western lowland population, we observe evidence for population substructure, and a deficit of rare genetic variants suggesting a recent episode of population contraction. In western lowland gorillas, there is an elevation of variation towards telomeres and centromeres on the chromosomal scale. On a finer scale, we find substantial variation in genetic diversity, including a marked reduction close to the major histocompatibility locus, perhaps indicative of recent strong selection there. These findings suggest that despite their maintaining an overall level of genetic diversity equal to or greater than that of humans, population decline, perhaps associated with disease, has been a significant factor in recent and long-term pressures on wild gorilla populations.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Human, Hominidae, Gorilla, Ape, Western Lowland Gorilla, Eastern Lowland Gorilla


Mammals communicate socially through visual, auditory and chemical signals. The chemical sense is the oldest sense and is shared by all organisms including bacteria. Despite mounting evidence for social chemo-signaling in humans, the extent to which it modulates behavior is debated and can benefit from comparative models of closely related hominoids. The use of odor cues in wild ape social communication has been only rarely explored. Apart from one study on wild chimpanzee sniffing, our understanding is limited to anecdotes. We present the first study of wild gorilla chemo-communication and the first analysis of olfactory signaling in relation to arousal levels and odor strength in wild apes. If gorilla scent is used as a signaling mechanism instead of only a sign of arousal or stress, odor emission should be context specific and capable of variation as a function of the relationships between the emitter and perceiver(s). Measured through a human pungency scale, we determined the factors that predicted extreme levels of silverback odor for one wild western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) group silverback. Extreme silverback odor was predicted by the presence and intensity of inter-unit interactions, silverback anger, distress and long-calling auditory rates, and the absence of close proximity between the silverback and mother of the youngest infant. Odor strength also varied according to the focal silverback’s strategic responses during high intensity inter-unit interactions. Silverbacks appear to use odor as a modifiable form of communication; where odor acts as a highly flexible, context dependent signaling mechanism to group members and extra-group units. The importance of olfaction to ape social communication may be especially pertinent in Central African forests where limited visibility may necessitate increased reliance on other senses.

Concepts: Primate, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Gorillas, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla


While population-level genomic sequence data have been gathered extensively for humans, similar data from our closest living relatives are just beginning to emerge. Examination of genomic variation within great apes offers many opportunities to increase our understanding of the forces that have differentially shaped the evolutionary history of hominid taxa. Here, we expand upon the work of the Great Ape Genome Project by analyzing medium to high coverage whole genome sequences from 14 western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), 2 eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), and a single Cross River individual (Gorilla gorilla diehli). We infer that the ancestors of western and eastern lowland gorillas diverged from a common ancestor ~261 thousand years ago (kya), and that the ancestors of the Cross River population diverged from the western lowland gorilla lineage ~68 kya. Using a diffusion approximation approach to model the genome-wide site frequency spectrum, we infer a history of western lowland gorillas that includes an ancestral population expansion of ~1.4-fold around ~970 kya and a recent ~5.6-fold contraction in population size ~23 kya. The latter may correspond to a major reduction in African equatorial forests around the Last Glacial Maximum. We also analyze patterns of variation among western lowland gorillas to identify several genomic regions with strong signatures of recent selective sweeps. We find that processes related to taste, pancreatic and saliva secretion, sodium ion transmembrane transport, and cardiac muscle function are overrepresented in genomic regions predicted to have experienced recent positive selection.

Concepts: Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Ape, Gorillas, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla, Eastern Lowland Gorilla


The present paper describes two distinct behaviors relating to food processing and communication that were observed in a community of five separately housed groups of lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in captivity during two study periods one decade apart: (1) a food processing technique to separate wheat from chaff, the so-called puff-blowing technique; and (2) a male display used to attract the attention of visitors, the so-called throw-kiss-display. We investigated (a) whether the behaviors were transmitted within the respective groups; and if yes, (b) their possible mode of transmission. Our results showed that only the food processing technique spread from three to twenty-one individuals during the ten-year period, whereas the communicative display died out completely. The main transmission mode of the puff-blowing technique was the mother-offspring dyad: offspring of puff-blowing mothers showed the behavior, while the offspring of non- puff-blowing mothers did not. These results strongly support the role mothers play in the acquisition of novel skills and vertical social transmission. Furthermore, they suggest that behaviors, which provide a direct benefit to individuals, have a high chance of social transmission while the loss of benefits can result in the extinction of behaviors.

Concepts: Psychology, Wheat, Hominidae, Gorilla, Gorillas, Mammals of Africa, Western Lowland Gorilla, Western Gorilla