Gorillas in Fact and Fiction

I had always thought of Tarzan as being raised by gorillas, so I was surprised when I actually read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. In introducing the apes, Burroughs called them, “a species closely allied to the gorilla.” But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Gorilla behavior was not well known in Burroughs’ time. If further discoveries revealed that real gorillas were not like the apes in the novel, Burroughs had covered himself by making them, not true gorillas, but a hypothetical species.

Then came the 2016 movie, “The Legend of Tarzan.” The same thing happened: at one point, when the main characters are under threat by the apes, Tarzan says, “They’re not gorillas. Gorillas are gentle!”

That does seem to be a popular view nowadays, especially with the growth of gorilla tourism. But I remember Diane Fossey’s National Geographic article about mountain gorillas. She drew family trees of the gorilla groups, including the cause of each gorilla death. Nearly half of the deaths were from poachers, of course; but most of the rest were what she termed “intraspecies killing” – the gorilla was killed by another gorilla. And who could forget Nunkie? Nunkie built a group of his own by kidnapping females from other groups. Those mountain gorillas don’t sound very gentle.

They do, however, sound more like Burroughs’ ideas. Disney often distorts characters to fit their formula, so in Disney’s animated feature, “Tarzan,” the silverback Kerchak is a stern but devoted patriarch, concerned for his family’s protection. But if you read the original Burroughs novel, Kerchak is not a nice person, at all. Burroughs’ apes frequently engaged in intraspecies killing.

Here’s the strange twist, though. The 2016 movie was set in a real, historical geography, the Belgian Congo. Conversely, Burroughs was vague about African geography, but we can glean a general area from the details that 1) the lush rainforest was easily accessible from the coast, and 2) it was in the French sphere of colonization. This means that Tarzan would have lived in the range of the nominate gorilla species, Gorilla gorilla. But as we now know, there are two species in the Genus Gorilla, and Diane Fossey’s mountain gorillas were Gorilla beringei. In a sense, we could indeed call them “a species closely allied to the gorilla,” in the same way and to the same degree that the bonobo is a species closely allied to the chimpanzee.

What makes this a strange twist is this: most of what we think we know about gorillas comes from Fossey’s work with Gorilla beringei. Think about what that might mean. Imagine if most of we thought we knew about chimpanzees turned out actually to pertain to Pan paniscus. Think of how differently Pan paniscus behaves compared with Pan troglodytes. What if Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei turn out to be equally different?


You should dig up a copy of the 1984 movie Greystoke : The Legend of Tarzan , Lord of the Apes, it is, in my opinion, much better than the 2016 movie.

If I recall correctly (it’s been a long time since I read the Tarzan books), in one of them there is a scene where Tarzan fights a gorilla. In the books gorillas rarely appear and when the do they’re feared.

I literature it would be remiss not to mention both Michael Crichton’s Congo and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books, in which gorillas appear occasionally.

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Most of what we know about wild gorillas comes from Gorilla beringei. However, nearly every gorilla in captivity is Gorilla gorilla, so we know quite a bit about that species, too.

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