Scientists Study Gorilla Who Uses Tools By ANJAN SUNDARAM, Associated Press
GOMA, Congo - A young gorilla in a Congo sanctuary is smashing palm nuts between
two rocks to extract oil, surprising and intriguing scientists who say they have
much to learn about what gorillas can do and about what it says about
It had been thought that the premeditated use of stones and sticks to accomplish
a task like cracking nuts was restricted to humans and the smaller, more agile
Then in late September, keepers at a Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
sanctuary in this eastern Congo city saw 2 1/2-year-old female gorilla Itebero
smashing palm nuts between rocks using the "hammer and anvil" technique,
considered among the most complex tool-use behaviors.
"This is a surprising finding, given what we know about tool use in gorillas,"
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund primatologist Patrick Mehlman said earlier this month
at his Goma office.
He said the finding indicates that complex tool use may not be a trait developed
only by humans and chimpanzees and could have its origins earlier in the
evolutionary chain â€” among ancestors common to both humans and their closest
relatives, the great apes.
Gottfried Hohmann, an expert on primates at the Max Planck Institute in Germany,
told The Associated Press that Itebero's behavior "means that gorillas have a
higher level of understanding of their environment than we thought."
Itebero has been living in the sanctuary for a year, since local authorities
confiscated her from poachers. Mehlman said he believed Itebero, named for a
place near where she was found, started cracking nuts spontaneously and was not
influenced by humans.
Alecia Lilly, a primatologist in Rwanda who worked for over a decade with
captive gorillas in South Carolina and has seen Itebero at work, said most
learning among gorillas occurs through imitation. But Itebero had no instructor,
alone in her sanctuary with her keeper.
"Itebero is remarkably proficient at cracking nuts," Lilly told the AP. "It
takes most chimpanzees many years to reach similar levels of proficiency."
Itebero's actions led some scientists to believe that gorillas in the wild might
exhibit complex tool use as well, though no one has reported such behavior.
Earlier this year, researchers reported observing gorillas in the wild in the
neighboring Republic of Congo's rain forests using simple tools, according to a
team led by Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo.
In an e-mail message Monday from the Republic of Congo's Nouabale-Ndoki National
Park, Breuer said that in 10 years of observation, his team had seen only two
instances of tool use among gorillas a stick used to test the depth of a pond,
and a small tree trunk used for support and as a bridge.
Breuer said it was difficult to compare the behaviors his team witnessed in the
wild with the more complex behavior exhibited by Itebero, who had had contact
with humans. But he said Itebero's action "clearly shows that gorillas have the
capability to use sophisticated tools even if they do not ” or rarely
” do this.
"Very often the use of tools is triggered by certain needs and it seems that
gorillas have only little needs to use tools in the wild," Breuer said.