Western lowland gorillas are endangered, but they remain far more common than their relatives, the mountain gorillas. They live in heavy rain forests, and it is difficult for scientists to accurately estimate how many survive in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Western lowland gorillas tend to be a bit smaller than their mountain cousins. They also have shorter hair and longer arms.
Gorillas can climb trees, but are usually found on the ground in communities of up to 30 individuals. These troops are organized according to fascinating social structures. Troops are led by one dominant, older adult male, often called a silverback because of the swath of silver hair that adorns his otherwise dark fur. Troops also include several other young males, some females, and their offspring.
The leader organizes troop activities like eating, nesting in leaves, and moving about the group's three-quarter- to 16-square-mile (2- to 40-square-kilometer) home range.
Those who challenge this alpha male are apt to be cowed by impressive shows of physical power. He may stand upright, throw things, make aggressive charges, and pound his huge chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar. Despite these displays and the animals' obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless they are disturbed.
In the thick forests of central and west Africa, troops find plentiful food for their vegetarian diet. They eat roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery, and tree bark and pulp.
Female gorillas give birth to one infant after a pregnancy of nearly nine months. Unlike their powerful parents, newborns are tiny—weighing four pounds (two kilograms)—and able only to cling to their mothers' fur. These infants ride on their mothers' backs from the age of four months through the first two or three years of their lives.
Young gorillas, from three to six years old, remind human observers of children. Much of their day is spent in play, climbing trees, chasing one another, and swinging from branches.
In captivity, gorillas have displayed significant intelligence and have even learned simple human sign language.
In the wild, these primates are under siege. Forest loss is a twofold threat; it destroys gorilla habitat and brings hungry people who hunt gorillas for bushmeat. Farming, grazing, and expanding human settlements are also shrinking the lowland gorilla's space.