Zoo Atlanta, UGA partnership gives new insight to gorillas living in captivity

ATLANTA — A unique partnership between Zoo Atlanta and the University of Georgia could help advocates better understand how gorillas can thrive in zoos around the world and in the wild.

UGA graduate student Caroline Jones came up with the idea to build an artificial termite mound for the western lowland gorillas at Zoo Atlanta.

"It helps us have a firmer understanding of how to better manage them in captivity," Jones told Channel 2 Action News.

Jones teamed up with UGA engineers to design and construct a 3,000-pound artificial termite mound.
In the wild, gorillas forage for food in termite mounds.

The artificial mound at Zoo Atlanta mimics that, but instead it's filled with raisins, applesauce or even oatmeal.

"It's very much enriching their lives. I love seeing them and how happy they are," said Zoo Atlanta Assistant Curator of Primates Jodi Carrigan.

Carrigan has worked at Zoo Atlanta for 15 years. She has dedicated her life to the care and

conservation of gorillas and told us she noticed an immediate increase in the gorillas' activity level and problem-solving skills from the moment they saw the mound.

"They'll actually take the top of the branches off because it won't fit, but they'll leave the leaves at the bottom on, which serves kind of like as a spoon.  The great part is that all of the other gorillas, the younger ones, are learning to use tools by watching the older ones and their group," said Carrigan.

For the past year, Jones has been closely monitoring the gorillas' reaction to the mound and using it to study their social behavior.

"This termite mound changes the dynamics of those relationships and it kind of forces them to weigh those options of whether -- OK, so I get closer to this other gorilla that I normally wouldn't hang out with, but I also get a food reward?" said Jones.

Jones and her team are now analyzing the data they've collected.

"It was a real collaborative, interdisciplinary effort and clearly it paid off," said Jones.

Zoo Atlanta is home to 20 western lowland gorillas.