Hiking up the Virunga Mountains to see mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. Spending nearly a month in-country keeps your excitement in a pressure cooker, so that by the time you are trekking to see these amazing apes, your heart is already racing in anticipation. Yet, the moment I saw one for the first time, I was overcome by awe, amazement, and—more than anything—silence. I went numb for a moment and let go of my analytical brain, if only for a few seconds. He just sat there calmly, going about his daily routine. It took me several minutes to get situated and remember that I was there to actually collect behavioral data.
As a student of the University of Arizona’s Primate Studies Field School, I was overjoyed to say the least to be in the alpine cloud forests of Rwanda. Moreover, to be with some of our closest living relatives was a dream I never thought would come true, and certainly not at the young age of 20. We had just found the Titus group of gorillas. It was one of many groups Dian Fossey originally found and named based on the dominant silverback in the group. Titus’s legacy is grand and well-known, but this story is not about the great male; rather, it is about the youngest member of the group: Segasira. I was watching the juvenile for play-specific behaviors and, as can be expected for juveniles of nearly every species, Segasira was getting himself into some sticky situations. He was the only juvenile in the group, and so to substitute for friends he often found himself bumbling around upside down, falling out of trees, or making his own drum set out of the substrate around him.
As the good little amateur behaviorist that I was, I followed his every move, noting when he initiated locomotor play, object play, rest, movement, feeding, etc. At one particularly hairy point, he was crawling through thick patches of nettles, and I had to hunch over and peer through the foliage to keep my eye on him. But little did I know that someone else was keeping an eye on me…
That someone else was watching my every move: my hunched back, my intense gaze, my extended neck. All of these behaviors are clear threats in the non-human primate world, and before I knew it, I was suddenly being charged by Segasira’s older brother, blackback gorilla Urugwiro. I managed to briefly break my focus from Segasira just enough to avoid getting trampled. My heart racing and my hands stinging from the nettle patch where I had fallen, I quickly realized that this was just a warning. It was a proverbial “Hey, watch yourself” kind of charge, a “you are on very thin ice” kind of charge. The rest of the day, I kept my distance and was much more aware of any potentially threatening behaviors on my end.
I learned one of the most important field lessons that day. Never doubt that the animals you are watching are likely watching you, too. It is of the utmost importance to be fully aware of your body posture, your eye contact, and pointing. Even when conducting traditionally non-invasive behavioral work, we must recognize that our presence and our own non-verbal behaviors can be a source of stress for our study subjects. Doing our best to minimize that stress not only reduces our impact on the community but also facilitates the more naturalistic behaviors that interest us.
Author: Caitlin Hawley graduated from the University of Arizona with degrees in Biological Anthropology and Psychology. She is a friend of the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and hopes to attend graduate school in the fall. This story is from her first experience conducting field work and first time in Africa while being a student of the Primate Studies Field School.