Two gorillas at the Bronx Zoo in New York put on a show for visitors in September 2021 when they got a little too friendly with each other.
A video that was first reported by the tabloid publication TMZ, who claimed the two were participating in an “oral sex peep show.”
But were the two really getting down and dirty? Likely, yes.
In an email to Snopes, California Academy of Science curator and biologist Vikki McCloskey said that this type of behavior has been recorded by gorilla keepers.
“Sometimes in primate groups (and other groups!) the beta males will perform a submissive behavior to the alpha (in this case the silverback) to keep the group dynamics in sync,” she said.
In this case, the large silverback has his back turned to the glass. The male on the ground is the beta.
Silverback gorillas are so named for a long, silver-hued strip of hair that runs across the back. In gorilla troops, only the dominant male, who makes the decisions and oversees the troop, will develop this silver strip. The silverback has “exclusive” rights to the adult females in his group. And at the Bronx Zoo, that title goes to Ernie, a 38-year-old primate that the zoo describes as spending “most of his days lounging in large nests and playing with his five offspring.”
The 6.5-acre exhibit known as the Congo Gorilla Forest is home to a “troop,” or family, of 20 western lowland gorillas — scientific name Gorilla gorilla gorilla — in 2021. Snopes contacted the Bronx Zoo to determine the name, age, and gender of the second primate, but did not hear back in time for publication. We’ll update this story if we hear back.
In the animal kingdom, such acts are known as non-reproductive or non-conceptive copulation, meaning that the individuals engaging in the acts are doing so for purposes not solely for reproducing, like for pleasure or dominance. And primates aren’t the only ones who engage in such activities. A 2019 study examining the structure of the dolphin clitoris found that dolphins also likely have sex for pleasure, and bonobos are famous for their laissez-faire attitude when it comes to pleasurable sex life.
Gorillas are the largest of apes, but the western lowland gorilla is the smallest of the subspecies, according to the Smithsonian Institute. But when compared to their human cousins, they’re still quite large. Adult males weigh can weigh up to 500 pounds, and stand up to 6 feet tall. Native to the Congo Basin, populations of the western lowland gorilla are declining, and they are considered critically endangered.