Gorilla Teeth: Their Size and How They Compare to Human Teeth

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Have you ever watched a gorilla's toothy facial expression and thought, "Wow! Those are some big teeth!"? As the world's largest primate, gorillas are known throughout the animal kingdom for their impressive size, and their teeth match those large proportions. This article reviews what factors influenced the evolution of gorilla teeth, and how their teeth compare to ours. So, why are gorillas' teeth so big? Let's find out!

What are gorillas and where do they live?

Large silverback male western lowland gorilla
Large silverback male western lowland gorilla

©Andreas Rose/Shutterstock.com

Gorillas are large mammals that live in several African countries. They have their own genus called gorillas . In this genus there are two species, each with two subspecies:

  • Gorilla Gorillas (Western gorillas) Two subspecies live in west-central Africa:
    • Gg Gorilla (Western Lowland Gorilla)
    • Gg diehli (river gorilla)
  • Two subspecies of the gorilla beringei (eastern gorilla) live in central and eastern Africa:
    • Gb beringei (mountain gorilla)
    • Gb graueri (Eastern lowland gorilla)

Significant genetic variation exists between gorilla species and subspecies. Eastern and western gorillas are geographically separated by the Congo River and its associated tributary rivers. Therefore, different species inhabit different habitats. Mountain gorillas live in higher altitude mountain forest habitats. Western lowland gorillas live in montane and secondary forests as well as lowland marsh areas. River crossing gorillas live in tropical rainforests and dense jungle habitats. Eastern lowland gorillas inhabit tropical forests and jungles in mountainous regions. Habitat is important for understanding an animal's teeth because different regions have different food resources.

Gorilla vs Human
Humans and gorillas share 98% DNA

©David Carillet/Shutterstock.com

Gorillas and humans are both primates. In primates, gorillas and humans belong to the same subfamily known as homininae . This subfamily split into tribes of gorillas and tribes of humans , who shared a common ancestor about 10 million years ago. The Hominini tribe includes humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees, while the Gorillini tribe includes only the gorilla species. Gorillas are thus the most closely related living species to humans after chimpanzees and bonobos.

While 10 million years may seem like a long time, it's a short period considering how long it took for the major animal classes (mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and invertebrates) to diverge. Mammals appeared 210 million years ago! To learn more about early mammalian evolution, check out this article. Humans and gorillas are so closely related, in fact, they share 98% of their DNA. An unfortunate side effect of this close evolutionary relationship, however, is the ease with which zoonotic diseases spread between species. In 2004, the Ebola outbreak that severely affected humans also killed 95 percent of western lowland gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Humans have transmitted the coronavirus to gorillas in captivity during the Covid-19 pandemic, with studies predicting possible outbreaks in the wild, but the risk to them is low due to outdoor air circulation.

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How does diet affect the size and shape of teeth?

Mountain gorilla eating leaves
mountain gorilla eating leaves

© Ltshears – Public Domain

Apart from the occasional insect, gorillas are herbivores, feeding mainly on leafy plants. The diet of different species of gorillas varies, but generally consists of ripe fruit, leaves, roots, shoots, bark and other plant material. These foods are high in fiber and difficult to process and digest. Western lowland and eastern lowland gorillas eat more fruit than mountain or river-crossing gorillas, and it is much softer than other plant materials.

Diet has a huge impact on the evolution of teeth, as teeth of different sizes or shapes may process different materials more efficiently. Also, animals that eat plants have to eat a lot because it is not a nutrient-dense food source. As a result, gorillas have large teeth capable of grinding and breaking down large amounts of hard material.

Likewise, other ape species, such as chimpanzees and humans, have teeth specialized for eating. Chimpanzee teeth are specialized for omnivorous food, including tough meats and plants. Enlarged canines are essential for a diet that includes meat. Early human species also had larger canines, but throughout human evolution our teeth became smaller and less prominent. This is because with the discovery of fire, the ability to cook food has made it much easier for us to eat. Human teeth evolved to be smaller over time as food preparation made chewing easier.

What other factors influenced the evolution of gorilla teeth?

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) - Yawning in the forest
This female mountain gorilla lacks the large canine teeth of the male mountain gorilla

©PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock.com

There is a marked difference in tooth size between male and female gorillas within the same species. This is called sexual dimorphism and is the result of an evolutionary force called sexual selection. Sexual dimorphism is the presence of distinct traits that differ between the sexes of the same species. This happens during the evolution of a species when there is competition between one sex for the opportunity to mate with the opposite sex.

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peacock with feathers spread
Male peacocks have large, colorful tail feathers, which are necessary to win a mate

© iStock.com/Anna_Brothankova

In peacocks, for example, males must compete with females for mating opportunities. Males with more refined tail feathers are more frequently selected by females as suitable mates and thus reproduce more. After a few generations, peacocks with elaborate tails will have the most offspring, and each generation will have more fancy tails. As long as male tails provide a selective advantage that helps them win female mates, male tails, on average, evolve to become larger and more colorful.

Similar to peacocks, in gorillas there is competition among males for dominance and access to females. Gorillas most commonly live in a harem, which consists of a dominant male and several reproductive females. Larger male gorillas with larger canine teeth are better able to protect females in the harem from smaller males and make more attractive mates. Larger males may reproduce more successfully than smaller males. As a result, genes for large bodies and large canines are passed on to the next generation more frequently than genes for small bodies and male gorillas, evolving sexually dimorphic traits over time. No significant sexual dimorphism exists in human teeth.

How big are gorilla teeth?

Gorilla - Gorilla howling and baring teeth
Male gorillas have very large canine teeth

©BDMPhoto/Shutterstock.com

On average, the canine teeth of a male gorilla are two inches long! Female canines don't grow as long. Gorillas have 32 teeth, just like humans. These teeth include molars, premolars, canines and incisors. Gorillas also have the same tooth formula as humans, which means they have the same distribution of these different types of teeth. The common tooth ratio of apes is 2:1:2:3, that is, counting from the middle incisors, the upper and lower mouths each have two incisors, one canine, two premolars, and three molars. bottom.

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Tooth size varies among gorilla species. Eastern lowland gorillas have larger teeth than western lowland and mountain gorillas. The morphology or shape of their teeth also varies from species to species. For example, western lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas have markedly different proportions of molar cusps. To learn more about the size and shape of the teeth of different gorilla species, check out this article.

Some fun facts!

white animals - white squirrel
Albinism occurs throughout the animal kingdom and is characterized by a general lack of pigment in the skin, eyes, hair, or fur

©Christine Bird/Shutterstock.com

An interesting fact is that there is an ancient species of ape called Chororapithecus identified entirely from fossilized teeth. The species existed about 8 million years ago and was discovered during an expedition in 2005-2007. Interestingly, the size and shape of these teeth were very similar to those of modern gorillas!

Another interesting fact is that the only known albino gorilla is a western lowland gorilla named Snowflake. He was arrested in Spanish Guinea in 1966, lived to be 38, and died in 2003. Snowflake suffers from oculocutaneous albinism, which causes a lack of pigment in the eyes, skin, and hair. Snowflake had 22 offspring, none of whom were albinos.

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gorilla teeth
Gorillas in the jungle of Bwindi, Uganda

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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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