Dian Fossey's Gorillas Exhumed for Investigation
By Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
|September 24, 2008|
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.
In 1967 Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda's Virunga mountains, where she spent the next 18 years studying the primates.
She began her work by habituating the gorillas to her presence, so that she could sit close to them and take detailed notes of their behavior and daily lives.
"Imagine someone following you around for years and writing down all the stuff that happens to you—when you got the flu, when you found a partner, when you got bullied," project team member Bromage said.
Fossey buried gorillas that died on her watch in a graveyard near the Karisoke Research Station located in the Rwandan Volcanoes National Park.
While Fossey fought hard to keep illegal hunters at bay, many of the gorillas were killed by poachers. Fossey herself was murdered in 1985 in her cabin at the Karisoke station.
Because of this personal history, burials of those individual gorillas that were closest to Fossey were not disturbed.
In recent years, researchers have added to Fossey's legacy with a wealth of information on the ecology, health, and well-being of the gorillas.
"The depth of individual information associated with many of these skeletons is what makes this particular collection so extraordinary," said Shannon McFarlin, another project leader and a research scientist at the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology at the George Washington University.
Being able to compare notes that record "intimate details" about the gorillas with new skeletal tissue analysis will help researchers put previous observations into a broader context, McFarlin added.
Katie Fawcett is the current director of the Karisoke Research Center, which is now run by the nonprofit Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and helped facilitate the skeletal recovery efforts. "This study illustrates the value of the painstaking efforts, pioneered by Dian Fossey, to record the life histories of mountain gorillas during the past four decades," Fawcett said. For example, the analysis could shed light on how climate change might affect the remaining great apes, according to researchers.
Gorilla disease cycles, which can leave their mark on bones, are closely tied to environmental fluctuations from one rainy season to the next, New York University's Bromage said.
"This is important, because many here feel that the rainy season is drawing out more than usual because of global climate change," Bromage added.
And there may be other important implications for on-the-ground conservation efforts.
"[The analysis of the remains is] another tool in our toolbox to save the gorillas," said Michael Cranfield, project member and director of the Rwanda-based Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
If the skeletal evidence reveals poor nutrition associated with a group of the deceased gorillas, or example, conservationists could then cross-reference field notes for clues to what these individuals were eating, and then work to restore more nutritional vegetation to certain habitats.
Understanding the lives of mountain gorillas—one of our closest genetic relatives—may help scientists better understand our earliest ancestors, according to the research team, which is funded by National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration and the Leakey Foundation. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
For example, explained Bromage, "we may find that the developmental histories of male and female primate bones and teeth differ, giving us a clue as to how we may identify the sex of an individual early hominid."
Comparing bone and tooth tissue structure to Fossey's notes and other available records may also allow researchers to make the connection between specific irregularities in juvenile gorilla development and changes in social group dynamics.
This type of insight in turn may help reconstruct aspects of social behavior in early hominids, he added.
After the project's gorilla skeletons are cleaned for study, the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks plans to curate the collection at a recently opened Museum of Natural History in Kigali.
"This is a collaborative effort to assist the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks in the recovery and curation of their existing skeletons of mountain gorillas from Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, and to help build local capacity for the long-term preservation and management of this collection as a resource for scientists and researchers," Mudakikwa said.
Bromage added that it's "lucky that we had gorillas, a Dian Fossey, and her notes to see the possibilities."
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