On September 5, 2010, female mountain gorilla Tuck, one of Dian Fossey’s original research subjects, passed away after a long life in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. When members of Titus group finished their day-long vigil over her body, Tuck was carried out of the forest and brought to the Gorilla Doctors’ headquarters for a post mortem exam. To determine the cause of death, veterinarians inspected her remains and took fluid and tissue samples to be analyzed by pathologists in the U.S. After the necropsy, her body was brought to the mountain gorilla cemetery behind Volcanoes National Park headquarters in Kinigi. She was carefully laid out in a wooden box and buried in the black soil of the Virunga Massif.
Fossey and other researchers from the Karisoke Research Center learned a great deal about mountain gorillas from Tuck, who had been studied on an almost daily basis for four decades. Yet, even after her death, Tuck still has more to teach us.
Every mountain gorilla death, while a sad loss in its own way, provides insight into gorilla health that can help us better understand how to conserve future generations of gorillas. Bones as well can reveal previously unknown aspects of a gorilla’s life: its approximate age, whether it suffered from previous skeletal injuries or disease, and how much stress it experienced. By comparing the analysis of the animal’s bones with the behavior and health notes recorded by researchers and veterinarians during the gorilla’s lifetime, a more complete picture of its life emerges.
Comparing the skeletons of many gorillas from different time periods reveals even more. Scientists can trace environmental changes, and even how well gorillas were able to recover from serious diseases and injuries after being treated by the Gorilla Doctors.
That’s why Gorilla Doctors is collaborating with the Rwanda Development Board, the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, George Washington University, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), and the New York University College of Dentistry on the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project.
When the project commenced in 2008, researchers set out to recover the skeletal remains of deceased mountain gorillas buried since 1995, the year after park authorities stopped burying animals in Dian Fossey’s original gorilla graveyard deep inside the park. Protocols were developed for all future burials to ensure that skeletons would remained intact when exhumed. Gorilla Doctors contributes by carrying out the post-necropsy burial procedures and sharing gorilla health data with the project’s anthropologists. Since the project’s inception, 100 mountain gorilla skeletons have been compiled—the largest collection of mountain gorilla skeletal remains in the world.
Researchers are currently cataloguing and preparing the skeletons for detailed analyses. The specimens, currently curated at DFGFI’s Karisoke Research Center in Musanze, Rwanda, are also being imaged with a three-dimensional laser scanner so that Rwandan students and researchers, and scientists from around the world, will be able to study them.
It is our hope that the research findings of the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project will help the Gorilla Doctors to even more effectively diagnose and treat health problems in live gorillas. Once the Project has finished cataloguing and examining Tuck’s bones, we will have even greater insight into how she was able to survive for almost 40 years in the wild. We’ll be sure to share the project’s findings as results are published.
You can follow the Gorilla Doctors health monitoring efforts on our Facebook page, where we post photos and notes from our monthly visits.
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