The December issue of Zoobooks is all about gorillas. You’re going to learn some amazing things about these large primates. Gorillas and other apes are naturally extraordinary creatures, but over the past few decades, these animals have learned how to do some incredible things.

Perhaps one of the most famous gorillas is Koko, a 39-year-old lowland gorilla who learned to speak American Sign Language as a baby. Dr. Penny Patterson began teaching Koko for a Ph. D. project at Stanford in the 1970s. More than three decades later, Penny continues to teach Koko today at The Gorilla Foundation. Koko now knows more than 1,000 signs and can understand spoken English. Koko is also famous for her relationship with kittens, as told in the popular book, Koko’s Kitten, showing that gorillas may not be so different from humans after all.

Kanzi, a Bonobo ape at the Great Ape Trust, is also learning how to understand human language. He was the first of his species to acquire language by being exposed to it and the first ape to show receptive competence of spoken English. Kanzi is also talented at making stone tools, which helps scientists understand levels of skill in prehistoric ancestors. Watch this interesting video of one journalist’s encounter with Kanzi.

More extensive cognitive research with apes is being conducted at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Bonnie, a beloved orangutan at the National Zoo, has been a longtime research subject. Bonnie has the unique ability to whistle, a sound orangutans normally cannot produce. Bonnie learned how to whistle after hearing a keeper kae the sound. Scientists say this shows some apes can learn sounds from other species. This will help scientists better understand the evolution of human speech. Currently, scientists at the National Zoo are using Bonnie to study orangutan memory and decision-making, particularly if orangutans create a strategy to memorize long lists.

There’s no doubt that gorillas and other apes are intelligent animals. Read next month’s issue of Zoobooks for more interesting information on gorillas!