In the grand scheme of life, whether you’re a human, an elephant, a baboon, or a fish, it seems a universal truth that adversity experienced early in life often leads to detrimental impacts on health and longevity. However, one fascinating exception to this rule has recently been uncovered: the mountain gorilla.
Mountain gorillas who overcome the hurdles of their early years, provided they reach the age of six, appear to lead lives just as long as their unchallenged peers. This surprising revelation results from a study published in Current Biology, offering intriguing lessons for humans. We need to ask what makes gorillas so resilient to early-life adversity, and how can we emulate this resilience in our lives?
The comprehensive study provided invaluable data, made possible by a unique database of daily, lifelong observations of over 400 mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. It turned out that gorillas who experienced multiple adversities faced up to nearly 30 times the risk of death before age six. However, the survivors did not suffer any negative impact on their lifespan. Males who survived the highest levels of adversity even lived longer than males who faced the least adversity.
For female gorillas, whether or not they experienced a tough start did not affect their longevity. This collective data paints a picture of a species displaying impressive resilience, but the big question is why? Why can mountain gorillas bounce back from early-life traumas and go on to live normal, healthy lives?
Though a definitive answer remains elusive, a potential exclamation points to the gorillas’ protected environment and strong social structures. Living in a “weird little bubble,” as researcher Stacy Rosenbaum put it, the gorillas are safe from threats such as ecological scarcity, loggers, and poachers. Moreover, their social bonds are tight, providing a support network in adversity. For instance, if a juvenile gorilla is orphaned, other group members, particularly the alpha male, step in to offer extra care.
This two-pronged hypothesis suggests that for social animals like gorillas and humans, overcoming the impacts of early trauma might require a combination of social support and resources. It’s only enough to offer one with the other.
Of course, there are significant differences between humans and gorillas. However, we share a tremendous amount of common ground, and the essence of these findings could also apply to humans. When aiming to help children recover from early adversity, we should remember that more is needed to provide them with social or economic support merely. Both are integral to their recovery.
The research on gorillas offers an encouraging perspective: that early-life adversity doesn’t necessarily determine the course of one’s life. With the right support and resources, recovery and resilience are achievable. So, in our quest to understand human resilience, we might look towards our primate cousins for inspiration.