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The context of chest beating and hand clapping in wild western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)


Loud auditory gestures that are produced by repetitively percussing body parts are rare in primate repertoires and have been mostly observed in captive settings. Gorillas produce two of the most conspicuous long-range signals of this type: chest beating and hand clapping. Here we present the first systematic analysis of chest beating (n = 63) and hand clapping (n = 88) in wild western gorillas to assess the behavioral contexts in which they emerged, the flexibility of their use, and the age–sex classes that produced them. Data were collected at the Mondika Research Center, Republic of Congo, from a habituated gorilla group during two separate collection periods (June–August 2007; May 2009–June 2010). Our results show that both signals are highly context specific, with chest beating used only during display and/or play and hand clapping used only during vigilance and/or play. Age–sex classes differed in their use and production of these signals in that immature individuals used both signals only when playing, the male only used chest beating when displaying and never hand clapped, and adult females used both signals flexibly in two contexts instead of one. This study confirms previous anecdotal accounts of loud auditory gestures in western gorillas and adds crucial information on their flexibility across age categories. While chest beating has been described in both gorilla species, hand clapping as a way to communicate potential danger is unique to western gorillas. Further studies should focus on determining the variations in frequency and use across geographically distant populations.

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We thank the Ministere de la Economie de Foret of Congo Republic for the permission to conduct research in the Nouabale-Ndoki Park and to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for logistic and administrative support. We also thank The Leakey Foundation, Wildlife Direct and Richard Leakey, Primate Action Fund, Primate Conservation Inc., and University of Georgia CURO (Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities at UGA) for providing funding for this research. We thank Julia Jenkins for her work as field assistant, the trackers of Mondika for their skills in the field, and Monica Szczupider for editorial suggestions. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed (see Ethical Notes in Methods Sections).

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Correspondence to Roberta Salmi.

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Salmi, R., Muñoz, M. The context of chest beating and hand clapping in wild western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Primates 61, 225–235 (2020).

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  • Acoustic gesture
  • Ape communication
  • Rhythmic sounds
  • Chest beat
  • Hand clap