Oct
13
2005

Gorillas in the tool shed


Gorilla: A gorilla chewing some food.

Biologists working in the rainforest of Africa have documented gorillas using simple tools, such as using a branch to dig for food.

For a long time, scientists thought only humans used tools. In 1960, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using tools in the wild—the first non-human species known to use tools. In 1993, Caral van Schaik of Duke University found tool use among orangutans on Borneo. Now, we can add gorillas to the list of tool-using primates.

Humans and gorillas last shared a common ancestor some 5 to 8 million years ago. Apparently, tool-use evolved sometime before then, and has been inherited by both species. Researchers say this discovery will help us understand the evolution of the human species, and the human brain.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Mary's picture
Mary says:

gorillas could become humans!

posted on Sun, 11/13/2005 - 6:08pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Is this recent research? When I looked at the article the researcher was in Africa and not available to the reporter, so I'm wondering how current this is. How do you decide what make this 'news'.

posted on Thu, 12/01/2005 - 9:19am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The research was published in the November 2005 issue of the on-line journal "Public Library of Science-Biology." But, science publication being what it is, the article was RECEIVED by the journal in February 2005, ACCEPTED by the journal (after peer review) in September 2005, and MADE AVAILABLE in October 2005.

You can read the entire original article.

As for what makes something "news," well, that's a tricky question. I don't know how other regular contributors decide what to post about, but I subscribe to a huge variety of publications, for lay audiences and scientists, both paper and digital, and I write about things that are current and also seem really relevant or particularly interesting. Sometimes I will also post to answer someone's specific question or to add detail to another story, and those posts might contain older links.

But for behavioral studies, like the gorilla work, I would say that this is recent research.

posted on Thu, 12/01/2005 - 9:59am
John Grehan's picture
John Grehan says:

The statement on your web page that "Humans and gorillas last shared a common ancestor some 5 to 8 million years ago" is not a fact, but a conjecture based on a very poor fossil record. The last common ancestor might be as much as 20 million years according to some interepretations.

John Grehan

posted on Wed, 12/07/2005 - 10:22am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

It is true that the history of life is a complicated puzzle, and we are missing many pieces. Fortunately, we have more than one tool at our disposal. When the fossil record is spotty, we can turn to other disciplines: genetics, morphology, microbiology, etc. all contain evidence of how life evolved.

Different scientists will interpret the evidence different ways. But there seems to be a consensus that the last common ancestor of gorillas, chimps and humans lived about 7 million years ago. Professor John Hawkes at the University of Wisconsin--Madison explains the evidence on his website. Dr. Stephen Abedon, a professor at Ohio State--Mansfield, posts similar dates. A quick -- though admittedly not exhaustive -- survey of scientific websites shows most researchers agreeing that gorillas became a separate lineage around 7 or 8 million years ago.

Of course, gorillas were not the first apes to evolve -- gibbons and orangutans split off even earlier. Based on fossil, genetic, and other evidence, scientists deduced that the last common ancestor of all the great apes lived about 13 million years ago (as this article from Scientific American in 2000 proposes.) Sure enough, four years later, scientists found a fossil in Spain that both has the right features AND is the right age. Who says evolution is not a predictive science! ;-)

The first gorillas would have appeared well after such an ancestor. This discovery makes the 20 million year date highly unlikely.

posted on Thu, 12/08/2005 - 9:18pm
John Grehan's picture
John Grehan says:

In response to comments b y Gene on Thu, 12/08/2005 - 9:18pm.

There may be a consensus that the last common ancestor of gorillas, chimps and humans lived about 7 milliion years ago, but consensus is politics, not science. What matters is why most researchers believe this to be the case. The answer is, of course, that most researchers believe that DNA similarities track phylogeny, and that the rate test can predict a molecular clock. This is all very well, but the molecular similarities between humans and chimpanzees or gorillas is incongurent with derived morphology which shows humans to share many features uniquely with orangutans while there is nothing much comparable uniquely shared between humans and chimpanzees or gorillas. And then there is the fact that the australopith skulls not only look more like orangutans, they also have about 6-7 features otherwise found only in orangutans and fossil orangutan relatives, not to mention that some isolated fossil molars found in Africa that are labeled 'Australopithecus' have orangutan-like cusps. This is a substantial problem ignored in the science of human evolution.

The Spanish fossil does not provide evidence for orangutans splitting off earlier than African apes. Fossil evidence shows that members of the orangutan lineage go back at least 13 million years. If humans are more closely related to orangutans than African apes as the morphological evidence suggests, then hominids go back at least as far. As the sister group to humans and orangutans the origin of African apes would be even earlier. If the gorilla-like form of the Moroto indicates an Adrican ape affinitity then a 20 million year origin of gorillas and chimpanzees may be suggested.

John Grehan

posted on Fri, 01/26/2007 - 3:54pm

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