Observations of severe and lethal coalitionary attacks in wild mountain gorillas

Article Info

Rosenbaum, S., Vecellio, V., & Stoinski, T. (2016). Observations of severe and lethal coalitionary attacks in wild mountain gorillaScientific Reports, 6, 37018. doi: 10.1038/srep37018.


In humans and chimpanzees, most intraspecific killing occurs during coalitionary intergroup conflict. In the closely related genus Gorilla,such behavior has not been described. We report three cases of multi-male, multi-female wild mountain gorilla (G. beringei) groups attacking extra-group males. The behavior was strikingly similar to reports in chimpanzees, but was never observed in gorillas until after a demographic transition left ~25% of the population living in large social groups with multiple (3+) males. Resource competition is generally considered a motivator of great apes’ (including humans) violent intergroup conflict, but mountain gorillas are non-territorial herbivores with low feeding competition. While adult male gorillas have a defensible resource (i.e. females) and nursing/pregnant females are likely motivated to drive off potentially infanticidal intruders, the participation of others (e.g. juveniles, sub-adults, cycling females) is harder to explain. We speculate that the potential for severe group disruption when current alpha males are severely injured or killed may provide sufficient motivation when the costs to participants are low. These observations suggest that the gorilla population’s recent increase in multi-male groups facilitated the emergence of such behavior, and indicates social structure is a key predictor of coalitionary aggression even in the absence of meaningful resource stress.                                                                           

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