Gorillas’ chest beats may reveal clues about their body size – study

Nilima Marshall, PA Science Reporter
·2-min read

It is thought that mountain gorillas rapidly beat their chests as a way to communicate but scientists believe these drumming sounds may also reveal how big they are.

Researchers in Germany have found that audio frequencies of the chest beats made by larger males were “significantly lower” than those made by smaller males, thus revealing clues about their body size.

Edward Wright, the first author of the study from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, said: “The gorilla chest beat is one of those iconic sounds from the animal kingdom, so it is great that we have been able to show that body size is encoded in these spectacular displays.”

As part of a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Mr Wright and his team observed and recorded 25 wild adult male silverback gorillas at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

A male gorilla chest beating
A male gorilla chest beating (Jordi Galbany /Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund)

The researchers calculated the body size of each gorilla by measuring the distance between shoulder blades.

Audio recordings enabled the authors to measure the duration, number and audio frequencies of 36 chest beats made by six male gorillas.

They found that the chest beats of larger males had lower peak frequencies than smaller ones.

The researchers believe that larger males may have bigger air sacs near their voice box, which may be lowering the frequencies of sound they produce while chest beating.

A silverback gorilla chest beating during an inter-group interaction
A silverback gorilla chest beating during an inter-group interaction (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund)

The experts said they also observed variations in the duration and number of chest beats made by different gorillas – which were not related to body size.

The team believes these variations may allow individual gorillas to be identified across the dense forests where it can be difficult for them to see one another.

Mr Wright said: “This hints at the possibility that chest beats may have individual signatures, but further study is needed to test this.”

The researchers believe that chest beating may also help in assessing the fighting ability of rivals.

They said that female gorillas, on the other hand, are likely to use the information to find potential mates.