Introduction to Gorilla Gestures

    When I visited the San Francisco Zoo as a casual observer after having worked with signing gorillas Koko and Michael, I was struck by the amount of gestural communication used by the zoo gorillas. Some of it resembled the untaught gestures or even taught signs I had seen the signing gorillas use. Many questions came to mind: What does it mean? What are the processes involved in developing these gestures? What kind of communication is universal for all gorillas and what is individually learned?
    After observing the zoo gorilla group, it became apparent that "species-typical" expressions such as slapping, clapping, and chestbeating develop quite differently in each individual. Gorillas also create some gestures that seem to be unique to the individual. Other gestures are shared by several, but not all, individuals in a group. The gestures of different individuals at the same ages vary both in type and quantity and the same individual's gestures vary over time and in accord with changing social conditions. Zoo gorillas as well as the sign-instructed gorillas create gestures of an iconic (depictive) nature.
    The purpose of my research has been to describe the variation as well as the similarities in the gesturing of gorillas, to explore the physical and functional properties of these gestures, and to learn why and how they have developed in this particular captive group of gorillas. Beyond this, I am interested in the cognitive abilities of gorillas that make such gestures possible, and in the evolutionary significance of the way gorillas create communication with each other.

Working definition of gesture for this study:
    Any discrete non-locomotory limb or head movement that appears to be communicative, whether by sight, sound or touch, that occurs when gorillas are in proximity of each other and engaged in social action immediately before, after, or during the movements.

Through the links below you can explore some of my findings:

Why would gorillas invent novel gestures?

    My earliest research focused on interaction between Kubie and Zura, who did the majority of the gesturing in the group. I found three modes of reception:
1. Tactile gestures
2. Visual gestures
3. Audible gestures
    Some gestures appear to be Iconic gestures. Gestures do not appear only singly, but in Gestural phrases and exchanges. Gorillas at other zoos create their own gestures and also use some of the same gestures as the gorillas at the San Francisco Zoo. You can view gorillas using gestures at the Rio Grande Zoo.


- Dr. Joanne Tanner

- Charles Ernest




SF Zoo Gorillas


Gorilla Gestures Intro


- Why Create Gestures

- Tactile

- Visual

- Audible

- Iconic

- Imitation

- Phrases/Exchanges

- Other Zoos

- Gesture Table

- Triadic Play Intro

- Triadic Play Research


Copyright 2010 Tanner and Ernest Productions. All rights reserved.