for National Geographic News
Researchers are preparing the skeletal remains of 72 Rwandan mountain gorillas for a CSI-like analysis they hope will shed light on ape and human health and evolution.
The remains of the gorillas, recovered this summer from an area of Rwanda made famous by primatologist Dian Fossey, were exhumed from three graves or recovered from wildlife authorities and veterinary clinics, where they were stored post-mortem.
Many of the remains have already been identified as belonging to specific gorillas recorded in field notes by Fossey and other researchers.
"Reading" the recovered bones, teeth, and fingernails should reveal the impacts of environmental change and disease on the skeletal growth of these giant apes, which Fossey closely monitored for nearly two decades.
The work—led by an international team of Rwanda wildlife officials, anthropologists, veterinarians, conservationists, and forensic scientists—has so far resulted in the largest single collection of mountain gorilla skeletal remains in the world, according to one of the project's leaders, Tim Bromage, a professor of biomaterials and biomimetics at New York University's College of Dentistry.
The research team will now begin analyzing the remains, comparing what they find to observations recorded by Fossey and her present-day colleagues.
The work could expose important details about mountain gorilla diseases, allowing researchers to develop better conservation strategies, said Tony Mudakikwa, a project leader and chief veterinarian at the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks, which owns and manages the skeletal collection.
There are now only 700 mountain gorillas remaining on the planet. These critically endangered animals are split between Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Virunga mountains, which straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
(Related: "In Wake of Gorilla Murders, Isolated Group Offers Hope" [July 9, 2008])
Biologist George Schaller's groundbreaking 1959 study of mountain gorillas demonstrated that the great apes are gentle herbivores and not dangerous to humans, as most people had previously believed.
But it was Dian Fossey who brought Rwanda's mountain gorillas to fame.
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