A total 202 social staring episodes (prolonged gazing by one individual toward another within a short distance) were observed in various social contexts among six unrelated, adult, and subadult male mountain gorillas. Staring was not accompanied by distinct facial expressions by actors or recipients, irrespective of their age or dominance rank. Younger, subordinate animals tended to stare at elder, dominant animals more frequently than vice versa. Staring may have multiple functions depending on the social context. In the initiation of non-agonistic interactions, staring rarely occurred, but was very successful for younger males in eliciting play or homosexual interactions from older animals. Staring was also directed by younger males to older males for greeting or appeasement. It may possibly play a role in reducing the increased social tension that occurs during or after conflict and in averting the potential conflict among older males. Younger males occasionally supplanted older males by staring at feeding spots. This slow supplantation is similar to the phenomenon of food sharing achieved through begging behavior in chimpanzees and bonobos. A prolonged gaze including staring by subordinates towards dominants may characterize the frequent and prolonged face-to-face interactions in the African great apes, and contrasts with a frequent gaze aversion by subordinates towards dominants in macaques or baboons. A difference between gorillas and other apes is that, chimpanzees and bonobos make positive contact with each other through eye contact, while gorillas simply stare at another without physical contact in greeting or appeasement process. Staring may serve an effective strategy for younger male gorillas to intervene safely in olders' conflict and sometimes to suppress or inhibit olders' performance, but their non-agonistic contacts or supporting attacks may not contribute to the establishment or support of social bonds between them. It is possible that staring may be common among the African great apes and man, and that it has evolved as a tactics to mask the dominant/subordinate relationships between individuals with multiple functions.
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Yamagiwa, J. Functional analysis of social staring behavior in an all-male group of mountain gorillas. Primates 33, 523–544 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02381153