, Volume 4, Issue 3-4, pp 347-361
Date: 31 May 2001

Manual dexterity in the gorilla: bimanual and digit role differentiation in a natural task

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The manipulative actions of mountain gorillas Gorilla g. beringei were examined in the context of foraging on hard-to-process plant foods in the field, in particular those used in tackling thistle Carduus nyassanus. A repertoire of 72 functionally distinct manipulative actions was recorded. Many of these actions were used in several variants of grip, finger(s) and movement path, both by different individuals and by the same individual at different times. The repertoire appears somewhat greater than that observed in comparable studies of monkeys, but a far more striking difference is found in the use of differentiated actions in concert. Mountain gorillas routinely and frequently deal with problems that involve: (1) bimanual role differentiation, with the two hands taking different roles but synchronized in time and space, and (2) digit role differentiation, with independent control of parts of the same hand used for separate purposes at the same time. The independent control that allows these abilities, so crucial to human manual constructional ability, is apparently general in African great apes. Role differentiation, between and within the hand, is evidently a primitive characteristic in the human arsenal of skills.