Exhuming Rwanda's Gorillas: Fossey's Legacy
Dian Fossey imitated the body movements and vocal sounds of the mountain gorillas in the wild so that they would accept her more easily.
No mountain gorilla is ordinary, but those found in northwest Rwanda are especially fascinating. They are the gorillas studied by legendary primatologist Dian Fossey — the "gorillas in the mist." Now, researchers are exhuming the descendants of those gorillas, in the search of clues to primate evolution. Researcher Erin Marie Williams is part of that team, and has sent dispatches from the field.
August 3, 2009 Dian Fossey brought international attention to the plight of Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas. Her own research with the gorillas was stopped short when she was murdered in 1985.
July 28, 2009 Paleontology student Erin Marie Williams ventures into Rwanda, where she works on a research team exhuming gorilla bones.
July 29, 2009 Where graduate student Erin Marie Williams sees a lump on a bone, her senior colleagues see a broken wrist that healed with time. That lump tells the story of a gorilla that walked with a slight limp on the right side and put most of its weight on the other arm.
July 30, 2009 We started the morning with two infant burial sites. Life can be rough for little gorillas. For one thing, infanticide is common, just as it is among many primate species.
August 3, 2009 Driver ants, it turns out, love open burial shafts — love them the way Midwesterners love fried food on sticks at county fairs. We had unknowingly created a driver ant buffet. A nightmare.
August 4, 2009 To get an idea of what Jean Bosco Bizumuremyi is like, cross Indiana Jones with Sidney Poitier. He seems like the kind of guy who can run up a mountain in the morning, help nab some poachers by lunch, chill with gorillas for tea, repair a bridge, and be home to tuck his children into bed. He is one of a precious few remaining at the Karisoke Research Center who actually worked with Fossey.
August 13, 2009 Soon, Erin Marie Williams will trade the Virunga Mountains for mountains of data, and retreat to a motion analysis lab. And Rwanda's gorillas are well on their way to being "de-mistified" after 10 million years of evolution, 40-plus years of behavioral observations, 10 years of planning, and two seasons of exhumations.
August 6, 2009 How do you give a Rwandan gorilla a shot, anyway? From a distance, if you're smart. The vets use darts to administer medicine, and just like with human infants, the bum is the best bet. Which is how one vet found herself aiming darts of medicine at an infant gorilla bum on a lovely Saturday afternoon recently.
August 5, 2009 The team starts the morning at Karisoke by removing as much dirt and soft tissue as possible from each gorilla bone. This is no easy task; Google a gorilla skull and count the places for grime to hide. These bones need Clorox and a sandblaster to shine. Instead, they get water, a mild detergent and gentle sponging to prevent damage.