Wednesday 27 February 2019

Western Lowland Gorillas—New research on their social structure and possible implications for the transmission of ebola virus

It is good to see old friends in print. This time it is the Western Lowland Gorillas we were privileged to visit and watch at Ngaga in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park of the Republic of Congo (Congo, Brazzaville) nearly five years ago (see my post of 18 August 2014).

We visited two groups just a few miles apart and it is the interactions that occur between the three group in the immediate vicinity of Ngaga that is the subject of a paper just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

I cannot overemphasise the enormous amount of work that went into this study done between 2013 and 2017. Behaviour of the groups was monitored on approximately 305 days each year. The trackers (who move at speed through the forest) located the groups each morning. Every individual gorilla can be recognised by the trackers and researchers. Notes were made of their behaviour for an average of two hours per day, itself a difficult undertaking because of the dense vegetation. And the authors do not even mentikon the sweat bees.

The behavioural work was done by Magdalena Bermejo (who heads the whole project in the Republic of Congo) and Germán Illera, with help from the same trackers who took us from the lodge to the groups of gorillas.

In addition to the behavioural observations, gorillas over a wide area were genotyped from samples of their faeces collected from the nests they build and occupy at night.

Previous observations on Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at bais (open grassy clearings often surrounding a body of water) suggested a very different behaviour from the Mountain Gorilla (G. beringei beringei). Groups of the former met without aggression—in marked contrast to encounters between group of the latter. In Ngaga, an area without bais, these observations were not only confirmed those but indicated a dynamic community structure. In the words of the authors:

Both approaches revealed a social system much more dynamic than anticipated, with non-aggressive intergroup encounters that involved social play by immature individuals, exchanges of members between groups likely modulated by kinship, and absence of infanticide evidenced by infants not fathered by the silverback of the group where they were found. This resulted in a community composed of groups that interacted frequently and not-aggressively, contrasting with the more fragmented and aggressive mountain gorilla (G. beringei beringei) societies. Such extended sociality can promote the sharing of behavioural and cultural traits, but…

The but refers to the disease that has devastated local gorilla and human populations, including the area studied—ebola. The authors make the point that interaction between groups could promote the rapid transmission of the virus:

Social behaviour may thus have greatly contributed to the massive impact of past Ebola outbreaks that have resulted in an increase of the threat level for the species, raising major conservation concerns about population declines in the future. Understanding group dynamics in social species is of utmost importance when coming to model the transmission of pathogens such as Ebolavirus. However, since the high mortality imposed by outbreaks is likely to select against this social behaviour, its persistence in W[estern] L[owland G[orilla] implies that either such massive die-offs may have been rare in the past, or that the associated benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In any case, the peculiar social behaviour of western lowland gorillas is an outcome of its evolutionary history and will definitively impact its fate.

I do wonder though whether the dynamic social structure and outbreeding may actually ensure a higher degree of immunocompetence of individuals. In other words, and turning the argument round, whether the social structure is actually protective to individuals exposed to potentially lethal infections.

Here is a link to the video included in the paper.

And here  again are my videos of the gorillas at Ngaga:

Forcina G, Vallet D, Le Gouar PJ, Bernardo-Madrid R, Illera G, Molina-Vacas G, Dréano S, Revilla E, Rodríguez-Teijeiro JD, Ménard N, Bermejo M, Vilà C. 2019. From groups to communities in western lowland gorillas. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286: 20182019.