On 19 August a little bundle of fluff came into the world. Keepers at Bristol Zoo found the baby gorilla nestling in its mother’s arms early in the morning.

The tiny western lowland gorilla – or ‘gorilla gorilla gorilla’ to give it its scientific name – joins a troop of six others in the Gorilla House at the zoo.

The family is part of a breeding programme, helping to secure the future of this critically endangered species.

Gorillas are hunted for their meat and their young are regularly taken and sold as pets, often only to end up abandoned or dying of starvation.

In fact, all nonhuman apes have been classified as endangered.

Newborn baby gorilla
Newborn baby gorilla with mum Kala at Bristol Zoo Gardens, all rights Bristol Zoo Gardens.

All in the family

What are the five types of apes?

Yes we are apes too. Chimpanzees and bonobos are our nearest living relatives, sharing approximately 99 percent of our DNA.

In fact, great apes and humans have the same blood types: A, B, AB and O. Blood types that developed more than 20 million years ago.

Evolutionarily, our ancestors split from chimpanzees around 6 million years ago. We diverged from gorillas about 10 million years ago, then orangutans about 14 million years ago.

Amazing apes

Our incredible cousins have been known to recognise themselves in the mirror, rival their human trainers at maths and to communicate with people after mastering 1000 words of sign language.

Nine-year-old Kala gave birth naturally to the infant with dad, Jock, just a few metres away and the rest of the family troop nearby.

I spoke to Lynsey Bugg, Bristol Zoo’s Curator of Mammals:

Can you tell me about the troop, the Gorilla’s personalities?
All are very different.

New mother, Kala, is a quite sensitive and gentle gorilla. She holds her own amongst the group and is well respected by the other gorillas. But if there’s an argument, it’s unlikely to be Kala that started it. She’s more likely to be the peacekeeper amongst them.

Our other females, Touni and Kera, are more feisty and like to assert themselves when they can.

Jock, the silverback and dad to the baby, is a sensitive soul. He likes what is familiar to him, particularly in terms of routines and his keepers. As the dominant animal of the group, he takes this job quite seriously and doesn’t tolerate a lot of dissent within the ranks – but also doesn’t show his dominance unless he needs to. He is well respected by the rest of the group. He is a great father and spends a lot of time with the two youngsters, Afia and Ayana. He keeps them close by, where they can play under the watchful eye of ‘The Boss’.

How does the relationship between mother and baby gorilla compare to a human mother and baby?
It is a very primitive bond. Mum is instantly very protective and will hold baby close. Baby is comforted by close (skin-to-skin) contact. Kala will learn that if the baby cries, it will generally settle if allowed to feed and she can often be seen giving it a gentle pat, as humans often do with babies.

“She can often be seen giving it a gentle pat, as humans often do with babies.”

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Just how clever are apes?
That’s a hard one to answer. They are very clever – with gorillas probably being the least intelligent out of the great ape species.

They can learn to use tools to forage for food (like sticks used to poke into termite mounds) and are able to solve puzzle feeders to extract a treat.

It also varies a lot between individuals. For example, Kera is very intelligent and will choose to spend a lot of time solving a puzzle feeder. Jock on the other hand will just get frustrated by it! So we try to tailor our enrichment to each individual.

Why the birth of this baby gorilla significant?
In order to keep a healthy population of western lowland gorillas, it’s important we not only have enough animals to make it viable in the long term (over 100 years) but that it’s also genetically healthy. To do this, the breeding programme only issues a small number of breeding recommendations each year. This allows us to ensure all offspring can move into suitable homes in the future and the population isn’t dominated by a small number of genetic lines.

We were given the recommendation to breed with Jock and Kala so this infant will have the opportunity to pass on his/her genes to future generations.

It’s also important for Kala to have the opportunity to be a mum and rear her own offspring, a vital skill for any female gorilla.

After she lost her last infant last year at one week old due to complications with her pregnancy, we wanted her to have another opportunity. We knew she had the knowledge and ability to be a great mum.

There is something very special about seeing a new-born baby gorilla, they are such an iconic and charismatic species.

Does he/she have a name?
Not yet. We don’t know the sex of the baby yet, and this could take a little time. A baby gorilla kept close to mum and is hairy!

Visitors to Bristol Zoo should be able to see the new gorilla as they pass through the Gorilla House on the Zoo’s new one-way route.