NPR logo Why Dig Up Mountain Gorillas?

Why Dig Up Mountain Gorillas?

Paleontology student Erin Marie Williams in Rwanda. Amandine Eriksen hide caption

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Amandine Eriksen

Paleontology student Erin Marie Williams in Rwanda.

Amandine Eriksen

About Erin Marie Williams


Erin Marie Williams is working on her Ph.D. at George Washington University's Hominid Paleobiology Program.


Normally an expert in stone tools and the evolution of the human hand and wrist, Erin Marie is now tracking and recording the history of central Africa's elusive mountain gorillas.

No mountain gorilla is ordinary, but those found between Mount Visoke and Mount Karisimbiare in Rwanda are especially fascinating. They are the gorillas studied by legendary primatologist Dian Fossey — the "gorillas in the mist." In 1985, Fossey was murdered in Rwanda, but her research survives and continues. As a result, the Rwanda gorillas and their offspring have become the most studied gorillas ever. Even now, scientists are learning from these gorillas: Their bones and DNA from can teach us new things about the species — as well as about human evolution.

Erin Marie Williams, a graduate student in paleontology at George Washington University, is part of a team of researchers exhuming some of the descendants of Fossey's gorillas. She has sent dispatches from the field. Below, her first:

Reading Bones

From 1977 to 1994, when a gorilla died, Dian Fossey and her coworkers would bury it in a dedicated graveyard at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. Since then, the burials have been undertaken by other organizations.

Scientists have long known that skeletal tissues hold secrets about the life and health of animals when they were alive. Fortunately, events during a gorilla's life — the age at weaning, the first birth of a young mother, or a traumatic injury — leave marks or "microstructures" that are etched in bones and teeth. Researchers can read those marks and evaluate what effect they had on the health and well-being of each animal in life, and, with field and health observations, paint a complete picture of each gorilla's life.

Normally, when scientists work only from bones, they have to deduce what the marks on the bones of animals really represent. But in Rwanda, they now can compare the bones of deceased gorillas with detailed field notes and observations taken almost daily by Fossey and other researchers when the gorillas were alive.

Dian Fossey imitated the body movements and vocal sounds of the mountain gorillas in the wild so that they would accept her more easily. Bob Campbell/Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International hide caption

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Bob Campbell/Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Dian Fossey imitated the body movements and vocal sounds of the mountain gorillas in the wild so that they would accept her more easily.

Bob Campbell/Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Decoding The Fossilized Remains

By combining information generated from the bones and teeth with those field notes and veterinary records, researchers will finally be able to confirm that they are correctly interpreting the health and life history information recorded in the skeleton. This information will help guide future research and conservation efforts aimed at protecting the approximately 700 mountain gorillas living in Rwanda today.

This research also has important implications beyond mountain gorillas. The ability to accurately interpret events recorded in hard tissue remains — such as bone — is central to understanding the lives and behavior of our early human ancestors. Bones and stones are the history books of the paleontological world. Rwanda's gorillas give researchers an opportunity to make sure they are "reading" the history books correctly, and equipped with this knowledge researchers can more accurately decode what is written in the fossilized remains of early human ancestors.

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. Follow an illustrated timeline of her life.

Last summer, scientists worked with the Rwandan national parks authorities to recover skeletons from approximately 70 gorillas, including some made famous through Fossey's research.

This summer, I will work with several teams in Rwanda to recover and examine the remains. I love digging in the dirt. I love knowing that something special is waiting for me down below, if I just dig long enough and look hard enough. And I know I'll feel a little spark of pride every time I read a new scientific paper based on this collection, just to have been even a small part of it.

Core partners in the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Preservation and Research Project: Tourism and Conservation Department of the Rwandan Development Board; The George Washington University; New York University College of Dentistry; Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Karisoke Research Center; and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project which began burying the remains of recently deceased mountain gorillas at other locations in and around Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park with the intention of later exhuming their remains for scientific study.

Collaborating Partners: The Institute of the National Museums of Rwanda; University of Indianapolis; Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History; New York University. Major funding support for this project has been provided by The Leakey Foundation, National Geographic Society, and National Science Foundation.