If you ever watched Tarzan, you must have noticed how gorillas and other apes use vines to move from one tree to the other. They would grasp the vine, swing with ease, and then catch the next one while flying above the ground.
But is that the case? Do gorillas swing from vines?
This is a great question that deserves a thorough answer. But the short answer is: yes, some gorillas might swing on vines, but most of them do not.
Gorillas Rarely Swing On Tree Vines – Here’s Why
Gorillas possess general ape adaptations for climbing and swinging on vines. However, such behavior among adults is rare, mostly due to their large body size. Only the juvenile gorillas will swing as part of their playing behavior.
Gorillas are the largest living primates, with adult western lowland males weighing around 370 pounds and females around 150 pounds. That is a lot of weight for tree vines to sustain without snapping.
Due to their high weight, gorillas decided to avoid swinging and spend most of their time on the ground. In fact, they will spend from 80 to 97% of their time on the ground, depending on the gorilla subspecies. As a comparison, orangutans spend 80-90% of their time in trees.
A study by Tuttle and Watts discovered that adult mountain gorillas spend only 3% of their time in the trees. Western lowland gorillas, on the other hand, seem to be the gorilla subspecies that spend the most time in trees, at least 20%.
Despite not swinging too much, adult gorillas love to climb the trees to play and grab fruits. And they will almost always climb quadrupedally – they rarely brachiate or jump from branch to branch.
When they are up in the trees, since they are large animals, gorillas will use scrambling/clambering behaviors to distribute their body weight, especially in the periphery of trees.
Playful time and swinging are reserved mostly for young gorillas.
According to Ian Redmond, a renowned tropical field biologist and conservationist, young gorillas in the wild love to swing on vines and will sometimes twirl around so much that they get dizzy and fall over. They can do so due to their lighter weight.
Such gorillas are also known to belch softly at one another when happy.
Do Gorillas Swing Like Tarzan?
One of the most iconic scenes from the Tarzan movies is when Tarzan is swinging through the jungle on vines. And according to movies, gorillas should easily be able to do the same, no?
Besides their weight issues, there are several problems with swinging on vines (or lianas, if you prefer). Lianas are plants that grow from the bottom up, just like any other plant. They are tree parasites that break tree limbs, block sunlight, and are not firmly anchored to the top of the trees.
If a gorilla yanked the vine and nothing happened, that would mean that the plant is entwined in the tree canopy. Since the plant is secured at both ends, a gorilla couldn’t do much swinging — at best, it could only sway back and forth.
If a vine gets detached from the top, a gorilla would get showered with a heap of insects and a very heavy plant.
That’s why gorillas, if they decide to move in trees, climb/walk on branches rather than vines. It might look like they are walking from tree to tree, rather than brachiating.
Gorillas, especially adolescents, might use vines to maneuver; however, they don’t swing as the Holywood movies usually portray. Gorillas prefer to stay on the ground if they can.
They might build sleeping nests high in the trees, but gorillas will spend most of the time (80-97%) on the ground.
In captivity, zookeepers might enrich a gorilla enclosure with climbing ropes; the apes there would climb and use them to swing, play and chase. A big advantage for them being able to hold onto the ropes are their strong forearms, shoulder blades, and the ability to grip with their feet – it’s like having four hands.
They might be good climbers, but how good are gorillas at jumping? Make sure to read this article.