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Many people wonder about how gorillas live in the wild. Like humans, gorillas live in independent families that are headed by a silverback. Within their habitats, the gorillas live in groups called troops. These troops tend to be made of one adult male or silverback who heads the family, multiple adult females and their offspring as well as blackbacks (male gorillas in their youthful stage). Though gorillas live independently, multiple-male troops  also exist within different forests in Africa.

A silverback is typically a fully grown gorilla more than 12 years of age. They are called silverbacks because of their distinctive patch of silver hair on their back, which comes with maturity. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth which also come with maturity.

Both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups to another. For mountain gorillas, the females disperse from their natal troops more often than males. Mountain gorillas and western lowland gorillas also commonly transfer to second new groups within their lifetime.  The mature males tend to also leave their groups and establish their own troops by attracting emigrating females and thus form new families. However, male mountain gorillas sometimes stay in their natal troops and become subordinate to the silverback. When the silverback dies, these males may be able to become dominant or mate with the females. However this behavior has not been observed in eastern lowland gorillas.

Within a single male group, when the silverback dies, the females and their offspring disperse and find a new troop. Without a silverback to protect them, the infants will likely fall victim to infanticide. Joining a new group is likely to be a tactic against this However, while gorilla troops usually disband after the silverback dies, female eastern lowlands gorillas and their offspring have been recorded staying together until a new silverback transfers into the group. This likely serves as protection from leopards. All-male troops have also been recorded.

Silverback Gorilla

The silverback is the center of the troop’s attention, making all the decisions, mediating conflicts, determining the movements of the group, leading the others to feeding sites and taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop. Younger males subordinate to the silverback, known as black backs, may serve as backup protection. Black backs are aged between 8 and 12 years of age and lack the silver back hair. The bond a silverback has with his females forms the core of gorilla social life. Bonds between them are maintained by grooming and staying close together.

Females form strong relationships with males to gain mating opportunities and protection from predators and infanticidal outside males. However, aggressive behaviors between males and females do occur, but rarely and at times these lead to serious injury.

Relationships between females may vary. Maternally related females in a troop tend to be friendly towards each other and associate closely. Otherwise, females have few friendly encounters and commonly act aggressively towards each other. Females may fight for social access to males and a male may intervene. Male gorillas have weak social bonds, particularly in multiple-male groups with apparent dominance hierarchies and strong competition for mates. Males in all-male groups, though, tend to have friendly interactions and socialize through play, grooming and staying together, and occasionally they even engage in homosexual interactions.