Almost everybody knows that pop group The Monkees were a world-wide music phenomenon during the swinging sixties, but until recently almost no-one knew that gorillas really do sing.
“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees,
And people say we monkey around.
But we’re too busy singing,
To put anybody down.”
Sixties pop sensations, The Monkees aren’t that busy singing any more. As a group, they broke up long ago. But there’s another group who are keeping their success and appeal alive – in their own uniquely Simian way.
A documentary team from the US-based John Downer Productions made an extraordinary breakthrough in wildlife photography earlier this year in the remote Ruwenzori Mountains of Uganda.
They managed, for the first time, to capture a group of Mountain Gorillas, a rare species of gorilla that only live in the high altitude Ruwenzori Ranges that border Uganda and Congo, singing as they settled down to their evening meal of banana leaves.
Scientists have been aware that gorillas can sing since this incredible fact was first officially documented by a study back in 2016.
But no-one had ever managed to capture the gorillas hitting the high notes on film. Gorillas are notoriously shy and difficult to get close to.
In fact, this writer visited the Ruwenzori ranges in Uganda in the early 1990s for an opportunity to track the gorillas through their natural habitat and I can attest to the fact that not only do these simians move far more quickly than humans can in the dense jungle, but they also have inexhaustible stamina that can push them on for hours up almost perpendicular slopes before they need a rest.
How do you get a gorilla to sing on film when they aren’t particularly inclined to give a concert in front of an audience? Well, the team from John Downer productions came up with the idea of constructing a replica animatronic baby gorilla, compete with realistic fur and movement, but with a tiny camera and microphone hidden inside.
They place the robot gorilla in a known gorilla nest – yes, gorillas sleep in flattened undergrowth beds called nests that are nestled in the remote jungle – and then they waited.
Now, infiltrating a gorilla nest in the mountains of Uganda is a lot trickier than it sounds – I know because I have done it. The gorilla travel in a group that is made up of mostly female gorillas and their babies perhaps with a couple of younger male gorillas who are allowed to tag along as long as the dominant male Silverback gorilla gives his grunted agreement.
That’s why the filmmaker chose the baby gorillas as the perfect entrée to the gorillas’ inner sanctum – baby gorillas are not considered a threat by Silverbacks and therefore, even if they are clearly not a regular member of the group, they are unlikely to be challenged or harmed.
When my group and I came upon a group of nesting gorillas back in the 1990s, we all had to immediately throw ourselves on the ground (there was gorilla poo to grovel in, a LOT of gorilla poo) and bow to the silverback, eyes always averted because Silverbacks interpret eye contact as a direct and personal challenge.
“Mountain gorillas learn a lot from each other by staring into each other’s eyes,” says filmmaker Matt Gordon. “Therefore, we designed the spy gorilla to be able to close and move his eyes so that when necessary, he could avert his gaze to show respect to the real gorillas.”
And what the film revealed when they downloaded it from the retrieved robot baby was astounding.
For the first time, the researchers were able to see what others had previously called “food-calling”, the gorillas’ habit of making particular rhythmic sounds while they ate their meal of banana leaves, the staple of their wholly vegetarian diet. (In fact, gorillas eat about 20 kilograms of the stuff each day, which makes them fart – a lot).
It appears that the grunting and associated guttural noises, which do sound a lot like singing, allow the gorillas to signal to each other that the group is eating, a communal activity that bonds the group together. The sounds continue as they eat, again as a binding ritual.
In an anthropological sense, it’s like being called to the table for a family meal by your gruff old dad and then made to sing for your supper.