Gorillas are very much like us. They can make an enormous variation of sounds. Gorillas can easily make themselves heard. There are also many subtle sounds and gestures within a troop.
Conservationist Dian Fossey lived with gorillas and identified 17 vocalisations. Making sense of the sounds gorillas make has been integral to demystifying their world.
Here are the basic sounds made by a gorilla, including those that you are most likely to encounter on a gorilla trek.
Gorilla Sounds – From Belch to Burp
This non-aggressive and non-threatening call is the gorillas saying they accept the presence of visitors. Trekking guides imitate this belch when a group first approaches a troop.
Immortalised by the movies, the chest beat is what almost everybody on a gorilla trek wants to experience. Note that they make this sound using open hands, not clenched fists as the movies suggest.
It’s essentially a display of strength and dominance over another, directed towards both males and females in the troop. Although it seems a show of aggression, a chest beat is not a battle cry or the start of a fight.
Similar to the belch but more high-pitched, singing signifies contentment. Gorillas sing when they are happy and these reassuring noises tell everyone else that they are content.
Ha ha ha chuckle
Yes, gorilla laugh and chuckle just like us. Like humans, this playful sound is most commonly made by the younger members of a troop. The gorilla chuckle is a little more complex, as it is both a laugh and an invitation for another to join them.
Scream or roar
A frightening display of power, usually accompanied by a charge. Gorillas bare their teeth and make a very loud waaaaaah sound, scaring others away. Note that they don’t use a chest beat to scare off intruders as many suggest – a scream or roar is the sound made by gorillas when they are angry.
Uh uh uh
A sound similar to what you’ve probably heard in humans before (perhaps an uncle or teenage boy), this gorilla sound translates as back off. They would use it to say something like “hey, back off, I’m going to eat that plant.”
Silence is very perceptible among primates. For gorillas it’s not a comfortable silence. When they sense danger they will stop and fall silent, using gestures to communicate before deciding what to do next. Sudden silence often means, “watch out, something is happening.”
The sounds detailed above are those perceptible to researchers. Gorillas have many other forms of communication, including sounds that are only known or used within the specific troop.
These are used for the same reasons we as humans make sounds. Gorillas communicate about food, make noises related to mating, give out discipline and show support, or express their own problems.
Many of these subtle sounds can’t be distinguished because they are different between troops. There isn’t a single gorilla language but many different languages. So we will never know all the sounds that a gorilla makes. 🙂