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Gorilla Hands vs. Human Hands: What's the Difference?

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While most people might distinguish a gorilla hand from a human hand, humans and gorillas are closely related and share many similarities under the fur and skin. If they're so similar, what's the difference between human and gorilla hands? This article explores some interesting similarities and differences between human and gorilla hands.

What is a gorilla?

Eastern lowland gorilla lying in lush greenery
A male eastern lowland gorilla sits in a bush.

©PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock.com

Gorillas are large terrestrial mammals found mainly in Africa, depending on the subspecies, in Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Angola, Cameroon, Central Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Nigeria. There are two species and four subspecies of gorillas: western gorillas (including western lowland and Cross River gorillas) and eastern gorillas (including eastern lowland and mountain gorillas).

Gorillas are primates. They are the largest primates on Earth and a member of the great apes. As such, they are closely related to orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans. Lineages including chimpanzees and humans diverged from a common ancestor with gorillas about 12-17 million years ago. Considering the timeline of mammal evolution (the first mammals appeared 65 million years ago), that's fairly recent! The close evolutionary history of gorillas and humans explains many of the similarities that emerge between the species.

What's unique about primate hands?

This juvenile gorilla grasps and chews a stick with its opposite thumb.

© iStock.com/nantonov

Primates are unique in the animal kingdom because their thumbs are opposite. Apart from primates, only a few mammals have opposable thumbs, such as opossums, koalas and pandas. The only primates with non-opposite thumbs are marmosets and tarsiers. New World monkeys, including capuchins and lemurs, have a pseudo-opposite thumb, which is not a true opposable thumb but does serve some function. Old World monkeys, including great apes, baboons, macaques and others, have opposable thumbs just like humans.

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Gorilla hands have the same features as humans. Having opposing thumbs improves dexterity, tool use, and social interaction. Gorillas have also been recorded using a variety of gestures to communicate, including social grooming. They also use a lot of tools, such as stones and sticks, to process their food. Interestingly, in California, a female gorilla named Koko has learned more than 1,000 different signs of American Sign Language and can communicate effectively with her keepers. She understands more than 2,000 spoken words and can respond in sign language.

How do gorillas walk?

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) - silverback mountain gorilla on isolated background
Mountain gorilla ( Gorilla beringei beringei ) knuckle-walking.

©Roman Samokhin/Shutterstock.com

Gorillas move or move around by articulated walks. Knuckle walking is a form of quadrupedal locomotion, or quadrupedal locomotion. During knuckle walking, the ape flexes the fingers of the front hand (not making a full fist), and the middle knuckle hits the ground. Gorillas are the most terrestrial of the non-human ape species. Some other great apes, such as orangutans, are arboreal, meaning they spend more time in trees than on land. Arboreal monkey and ape species rely on limb mobility, swinging from branch to branch, more so than quadrupeds. Gorillas have specialized adaptations to support knuckle walking, evident in the structure of their hands.

The skeletal structure of the gorilla's hand and forearm reflects adaptations to support its enormous weight while walking on its knuckles. Repetitive stress loads on bones and ligaments can lead to degeneration and stress fractures. Thus, gorillas have unique forearm and wrist bones that interlock to form a stable structure. In their hands, the third metacarpal evolved specifically for knuckle walking. The bone is shaped slightly differently, with a ridge that prevents hyperextension of the joint during knuckle walking. These skeletal features are only present in knuckle-walking apes. For more information on gorilla metacarpal morphology and knuckle walking, read here.

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Even within the gorilla subspecies, the degree of specialization of certain extremity bones correlates with the degree of arborealism. Gorilla subspecies that rely on knuckles to walk to varying degrees have markedly different levels of adaptation. Subspecies that spend more time in trees, have less specialized anatomy. To learn more about morphological changes in Gorilla medial cuneiform, read here.

What are the Similarities Between Human and Gorilla Hands?

gorilla hand
Gorilla hands are perfect for walking.

©Axel Koehler/Shutterstock.com

Human and gorilla hands are very similar. Both have the same bone composition: carpal bones, metacarpal bones, and phalanges. In many species, including gorillas and humans, the carpus is the wrist bone, the metacarpal is the hand bone, and the phalanges are the phalanges. Gorillas also have fingernails on their hands instead of claws, just like humans. In fact, all primates, with the exception of marmosets and marmosets, have nails instead of claws. Also, gorillas have no hair on their palms, like humans.

How are human and gorilla hands different?

Gorilla vs Human
The average gorilla's hand is longer than the longest human hand ever!

©David Carillet/Shutterstock.com

Aside from adaptations for walking and climbing, one notable difference between gorilla and human hands is their size. The average hand of a male gorilla is 6 inches wide and 12 inches long. The average male human hand is only 7.6 inches long! Although still not as large as a gorilla, Turkey's Sultan Kösen set the record for the largest human hand in 2011. The Guinness World Record for the largest human hand is an incredible 11.22 inches!

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gorilla hand

© Axel Koehler/Shutterstock.com


about the author

jesse elop


Jesse Elop is passionate about wildlife and enjoys learning about animal biology and conservation. His favorite animals – besides his puppy Rosie – are zebras, mandrills and bonobos. Jesse's background in biology and anthropology has provided him with many interesting facts that may appear in some of his articles!

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