Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality, and possible origins

Emilie Juliette Pauline Genty, Thomas Breuer, Catherine Louise Hobaiter, Richard William Byrne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

197 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


Social groups of gorillas were observed in three captive facilities and one African field site. Cases of potential gesture use, totalling 9,540, were filtered by strict criteria for intentionality, giving a corpus of 5,250 instances of intentional gesture use. This indicated a repertoire of 102 gesture types. Most repertoire differences between individuals and sites were explicable as a consequence of environmental affordances and sampling effects: overall gesture frequency was a good predictor of universality of occurrence. Only one gesture was idiosyncratic to a single individual, and was given only to humans. Indications of cultural learning were few, though not absent. Six gestures appeared to be traditions within single social groups, but overall concordance in repertoires was almost as high between as within social groups. No support was found for the ontogenetic ritualization hypothesis as the chief means of acquisition of gestures. Many gestures whose form ruled out such an origin, i.e. gestures derived from species-typical displays, were used as intentionally and almost as flexibly as gestures whose form was consistent with learning by ritualization. When using both classes of gesture, gorillas paid specific attention to the attentional state of their audience. Thus, it would be unwarranted to divide ape gestural repertoires into 'innate, species-typical, inflexible reactions' and 'individually learned, intentional, flexible communication'. We conclude that gorilla gestural communication is based on a species-typical repertoire, like those of most other mammalian species but very much larger. Gorilla gestures are not, however, inflexible signals but are employed for intentional communication to specific individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)527-546
Number of pages20
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number3
Early online date1 Feb 2009
Publication statusPublished - May 2009


  • Great ape
  • Gesture
  • Audience effects
  • Flexibility
  • Ontogeny
  • Young chimpanzees
  • Wild chimpanzees
  • Monkeys
  • Cultures
  • Primate
  • Traditions
  • Evolution
  • Language
  • Congo


Dive into the research topics of 'Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality, and possible origins'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this