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By James Hataway

A newly installed artificial termite mound is helping University of Georgia doctoral student Caroline Jones study and understand the social behaviors of two groups of western lowland gorillas housed at Zoo Atlanta.

The termite mound, which is made of steel and concrete, was built by UGA’s Instrument Design and Fabrication Shop. Weighing in at nearly 3,000 pounds, the mound contains seven holes that zookeepers can fill with oatmeal, peanut butter, gelatin and other tasty treats.

Just like humans, gorillas are incredibly social animals, but they also value their space. While they live in groups, they don’t particularly like being close.

“Group members usually prefer to be several meters away from each other,” said Jones, who is conducting the research as part of her dissertation. “What we want to know is if and how the gorillas at Zoo Atlanta will be willing to sacrifice their space for the benefit of delicious foods.”

In the wild, western lowland gorillas mainly eat fruit, which is often only available in small amounts. This can lead to intense competition as they forage.

“The termite mound will prevent the gorillas from picking up handfuls of food and taking it to another location away from group members,” Jones said. “We can also control when and how much food is available to the group.”

Jones and a team of undergraduate research assistants will record the gorillas’ use of space within the habitat and how they interact around this shared resource.

The data they record will allow Jones and other researchers to better understand the complex relationships formed in gorilla communities and how their social behaviors influence their well-being both in natural habitats and zoo environments.

When her research project is completed, the termite mound will remain as a permanent part of the gorilla habitat.