This might be the most commonly asked question we hear from our visitors. People assume that since gorillas look so much like us, they have the same facial expressions as well. However, this is not the case.
Gorilla facial musculature is very different than that of a human. A gorilla that appears to have a frown on its face is actually a very content gorilla. It’s just the way their face looks when they are relaxed. Furthermore, gorillas are just as interested in you as you are in them. You’ll often see them sitting near the glass, gazing out and looking “sad,” when in reality, they are watching you with great interest and curiosity. Think of it as TV for them!
If you do see a gorilla smiling, it means something completely different than when you or I smile. If it’s a tight-lipped smile or they are pursing their lips, then they are upset—either agitated or afraid. Often, you’ll see this facial expression paired with a sideways glance and tense body language. Generally, we see this behavior from the males, and it serves as a warning that he doesn’t like what you are doing (i.e. banging on the glass) so you’d better stop, or he will escalate and could charge the glass. Sometimes, they do this same behavior if we bring someone novel into the area, and they aren’t too sure about the person.
Many of their other mouth movements have a couple of different meanings and must be taken in context. If you see an open-mouth smile or yawn, this is often an aggressive display. When a gorilla is baring his or her teeth, it is often accompanied by vocalizations like coughing or screaming, as well as aggressive body language (perhaps lunging towards another gorilla, or slapping him or her). This is generally directed at another animal, for example if a subordinate gorilla steals food from a dominant one. You may also see some of these behaviors during play, and in younger gorillas, it is one way they “practice” their displays.
While not related to their smiles, I often hear people saying that they felt connected, or like they had “a moment,” when they were gazing into one of the gorilla’s eyes. Unfortunately, gorillas—particularly the males—see direct eye contact as a threat display, and you may find that he reacts towards you in a threatening manner.
Gorillas also spend quite a bit of time lying around, relaxing and napping. People assume that this must be because they are bored, but relaxing actually makes a lot of sense. In the wild, gorillas have three jobs: breed, eat, and defend their territory. When they aren’t doing these things, they are resting and conserving their energy. So it is very natural for gorillas to sleep or rest for a majority of the day. If you stop and think about your day, there are many times that you are not particularly active, too (sitting at your desk at work, watching TV on your sofa, etc.). Resting is a natural part of every animal’s life. To keep the gorillas mentally and physically stimulated, we provide them with plenty of enrichment, including feeding them many times per day. You can read more about how we enrich the gorillas here and here, and stay tuned to next week’s Gorilla Grumbles entry for more on gorilla behavior!
By Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper