The robust masticatory system of mountain gorillas is thought to have evolved for the comminution of tough vegetation, yet, compared to other primates, the toughness of the mountain gorilla diet is unremarkable. This may be a result of low plant toughness in the mountain gorilla environment or of mountain gorillas feeding selectively on low-toughness foods. The goal of this paper is to determine how the toughness of the mountain gorilla diet varies across their habitat, which spans a large altitudinal range, and whether there is a relationship between toughness and food selection by mountain gorillas. We collected data on the following variables to determine whether, and if so how, they change with altitude: leaf toughness of two plant species consumed by mountain gorillas, at every 100 m increase in altitude (2,600–3,700 m); toughness of consumed foods comprising over 85% of the gorilla diet across five vegetation zones; and toughness of unconsumed/infrequently consumed plant parts of those foods. Although leaf toughness increased with altitude, the toughness of the gorilla diet remained similar. There was a negative relationship between toughness and consumption frequency, and toughness was a better predictor of consumption frequency than plant frequency, biomass, and density. Consumed plant parts were less tough than unconsumed/infrequently consumed parts and toughness of the latter increased with altitude. Although it is unclear whether gorillas select food based on toughness or use toughness as a sensory cue to impart other plant properties (e.g., macronutrients, chemicals), our results that gorillas maintain a consistent low-toughness dietary profile across altitude, despite toughness increasing with altitude, suggest that the robust gorilla masticatory apparatus evolved for repetitive mastication of foods that are not high in toughness.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Animal Science and Zoology
- dietary ecology
- food material properties
- masticatory morphology
- mountain gorilla