Correction appended: Feb. 15, 2008
Leah was staring at George. A series of rapid, pulsating whimpers escaped her lips. She then drew near to George, who locked gazes with her, his face unreadable. His shoulders were relaxed, and when Leah was within his grasp he opened his right arm and embraced her. Leah lay on the ground and George looked into her eyes. He bent over to lie on her, while Leah wrapped her legs around George's waist...
Is this a missing letter from the Penthouse Forum? The steamy section of a well-thumbed romance novel? Try neither: The scene is actually taken from the April 2007 issue of the Gorilla Gazette, a primatology journal. Leah and George aren't star-crossed lovers caught in mid-tryst. They're western gorillas in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, observed by primatologists whose interest is far more scientific than it is prurient. There's reason to watch Leah and George's moment in the Mbeli Bai forest clearing, captured on film by a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the only times gorillas have been seen mating face-to-face, rather than face-to-back. "It's an extremely rare behavior," says Thomas Breuer, the primatologist who photographed the pair through a telelens. "We haven't seen this in 13 years of observation. If you look at the photos it's a very nice piece of action."
I have, and it is. But what does the act mean? Is it a one-off, or the start of a gorilla sexual revolution? Breuer is hesitant to draw any conclusions, noting that scientists observe just a sliver of the life of wild gorillas, but he speculates that face-to-face mating (also known as "ventro-ventral copulation," for the Latinists out there) might engender a deeper relationship between the silverback male, George, and Leah, the female. After the mating was finished (roughly 2 mins., about par for the course for your average silverback), Breuer even observed George holding Leah's hand. Apparently, even the world's largest primates like the occasional cuddle. "Maybe there's a way the act forms a kind of bond between the silverback and the female," he says. "But we just don't know."
That might be unlikely male gorillas, after all, are happily polygynous, mating with multiple females in their group. (It's good to be the silverback.) But there might just be something special about Leah. Breuer had earlier observed Leah (named inexactly after Princess Leia of Star Wars) using a crude tool another first testing out the depth of a pond with a long stick, rather than simply diving in. The very humanness of her experimentation struck him. "That observation was so interesting," says Breuer. "Very often they find solutions to problems in the same way as you or I would."
Perhaps that's why we find such stories so fascinating. More than just our neighbors on the evolutionary tree, primates are our doubles in the animal world. We look into their eyes and we see ourselves, and even experienced scientists who've spent years observing them struggle to avoid falling into the trap of anthropomorphism. It would be nice to believe, on a Valentine's Day, that when George and Leah lock eyes, they know a little bit of what we might feel when we look upon our loved one. And perhaps they do. But they don't need to. The life of a wild gorilla, caught only in glimpses from a distance, has richness and mystery that is wholly sufficient to itself, and which we'll never fully know.
The original version of this story erroneously stated that male gorillas are polyandrous, or that they have more than one male mate. Rather, male gorillas have several female mates, making them polygynous.