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Press release

  • 5 September 2005
  • Gorillas are video stars of Sussex language research

    A gorilla engages with the camera crew at Port Port Lympne Wild Animal Park

    A gorilla engages with the camera crew at Port Port Lympne Wild Animal Park

    Gorillas took the starring roles in University of Sussex video research into ape communication, being presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Festival in Dublin this week (September 6).

    Dr Gillian Forrester, a psychology Research Fellow, used a novel video observation technique to look at how gorillas communicate with each other.

    The visual, tactile and auditory gestures of four individual gorillas were observed with one camera in close-up, while another wide-angle camera observed the responses of other gorillas in the group. Dr Forrester will be examining the footage for regular patterns in gorilla gesture behaviour that may reveal complex communication in apes. These patterns may also hold vital clues about early human communication strategies and the evolution of speech.

    Dr Forrester says: "The way to understand the rise of verbal language is to study our closest living relatives - the great apes. Maybe because they share a similar genetic make-up, we assume they may be capable of human-like language, but this anthropomorphic approach has not been successful in understanding how speech evolved. We need to approach communication from the animal's perspective, focusing on non-verbal communication, which both humans and apes use."

    The video project, involving a group of western lowland gorillas at the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent last year, differs from previous studies because the observer gets two points of view at once: that of the gorilla making the gestures, and of the other gorillas with which it is interacting. This sets the signalling used in its unique context and helps to build a clearer picture of the complexities and subtleties of the communication.

    Dr Forrester explains: "You can't really analyse a single sensory signal and think that you are getting the whole picture. It's like facing a burglar with a knife in a hostile posture and assessing the situation based only on his /her saying, 'Hey, trust me, I'm not going to hurt you.'"

    Her initial visual observations show that gorillas, like us, constantly use multisensory signals to negotiate complex social networks and have developed communication strategies for keeping order within their social hierarchy in their everyday lives.

    Now that the video has been formatted and custom software has been created to code for all multisensory signals, Dr Forrester can begin work on analysing her data. She says: "Although at this stage the content of what gorillas are saying to one another is out of reach, our ongoing research may help us to find some regularities in gorilla communication and learn how complex communication evolved in humans."


    Notes for editors 

    Dr Gillian Forrester was due to speak at the BA Science Festival in Dublin on September 6, at 10am. For further information about the Festival, see

    University of Sussex Press Office contacts: Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email or J.A.Bealing@sussex,


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