Nose Prints: A Surprising Way to Identify Mountain Gorillas


Dec. 18 2023, Published 11:44 a.m. ET

Closeup of mountain gorilla face: eyes and nose
Source: iStock

The Gist:

  • There are many intriguing facts about mountain gorillas, but it's their nose print that makes these large apes truly unique.
  • Threats such as poaching, disease, and habitat loss have whittled down mountain gorilla numbers to just over 1,000 worldwide.
  • Conservation efforts, habitat restoration projects, and anti-poaching patrols are working tirelessly to protect our primate cousins.
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Deep in the Bwindi Impenetrable and Virunga National Parks — which span parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda in east-central Africa — the only two remaining groups of mountain gorillas navigate their lush kingdom.

Among the many fascinating things about these giant primates, one stands out: their nose. Like human fingerprints, gorilla noses tell a unique story, one that goes beyond mere olfaction to offer insight into the individual identity of each gorilla.

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Solitary mountain gorilla facing away from the camera, staring into the lush jungle landscape of its African home.
Source: iStock

What is special about a mountain gorilla's nose?

Dive into the intricate folds above a mountain gorilla's nostrils, and you'll discover a world of ridges and bumps as distinctive as the individual itself. These pleats aren't mere aesthetic quirks.

They act as a sophisticated identification system, allowing researchers to identify individual gorillas with near-perfect accuracy. Dian Fossey, the legendary primatologist, used this technique, transforming the wrinkles into a vital tool for recognizing these gentle giants.

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Fossey even documented drawings of the nose prints in her journals. Nowadays, the Fossey Fund team maintains a comprehensive database of photographs that capture the unique nose prints of each gorilla they monitor.

How many mountain gorillas are left?

The creases on a mountain gorilla's nose tell a story of a different kind, too. With a global population estimated to be just over 1,000, these magnificent creatures cling precariously to an endangered existence.

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Once a boundless playground, their environment is shrinking with every passing year. Human encroachment, fuelled by population growth and resource demands, has left them fragmented and isolated.

The glint of a silverback's massive figure can be both awe-inspiring and a target. Poaching, exacerbated by the illegal wildlife trade, rips families apart and leaves gaping holes in gorilla communities. Each lost life is a blow not just to individuals but to the intricate social fabric that binds these groups together.

Two adult mountain gorillas with two toddler-size youngsters sitting in lush green foliage
Source: iStock
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We share about 98 percent of our DNA with mountain gorillas, according to the WWF. This makes them highly vulnerable to human diseases, as they haven’t developed the necessary immunities to fight them off. Being exposed to the Ebola virus, or even the flu, can have devastating consequences for their numbers.

Conservation efforts provide hope for protecting mountain gorillas.

Amidst the negativity, there are glimmers of hope. Dedicated conservation efforts, driven by the collective passion of researchers, rangers, and communities, aim to turn the tide and have their population increase.

Habitat restoration projects are stitching together their fragmented landscape while anti-poaching patrols stand guard against wildlife trafficking.

So, the next time you see an image of a mountain gorilla nose, take a moment to appreciate its extraordinary beauty. Remember, it's not just a bump on a face; it's a window into the life of a species teetering on the edge.

Let it be a call to action, a reminder that we are all interconnected and that their fate rests in our hands.

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