"When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future." -Dian Fossey

Life is a beautiful gift. The moments we share laughing, eating good food, and doing things we enjoy with our loved ones are truly remarkable and make life worth living. It is also worth stating that our fantastic backdrop, planet earth, makes the magical journey of existence that much better due to the gorgeous scenery we can experience.

However, as all well-informed global citizens recognise, our planet is sick and not acting the same way as it did in the past. It comes as no surprise that the devastating effects of climate change are hurting things that we much cherish, such as animals, plants, and bodies of water. But what can be done?

As the brilliant quote at the outset highlights, we desperately need to value our planet now, more than ever before, and unitedly take strides to preserve what we love through conservation efforts.

When we work together to uncover information and facts about how unique earth is compared to other planets, we learn to appreciate things through a new lens. And, where there is admiration, there are passionate attempts at conservation. Now is the time to act!

It's also worth stating that by studying the examples of famed conservationists and biologists throughout history, an inert desire to preserve our planet through environmental awareness is cultivated. One of those fantastic examples is primatologist Dian Fossey who by studying the animal kingdom, she wanted to do everything she could to preserve it for generations to come. Let's take a closer look at the biological discoveries of Fossey!

The Early Years of Dian Fossey

comprehension of primates
Before Dian Fossey's research, humans did not quite understand gorillas and viewed them as scary creatures. (Source: Unsplash)

To get to know how Dian Fossey became a legend in the biological fields of primatology and conservation, one must start by analysing her beginnings and why choose to dedicate a significant portion of her life studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Dian Fossey was primarily raised by her mother, a fashion model, and her step-father, a businessman. From a young age, as young as six years old, Fossey was fond of animals and began to ride horses. By the time she reached her teen years, Fossey was a seasoned equestrienne.

In the last years of secondary school, when it came time to choose a career, Fossey was guided by her step-father to pursue a degree in business and finance. However, much to her parents' dismay, after a Montana-based ranch visit, Dian Fossey inscribed herself to a pre-university veterinarian course at the University of California Davis Campus.

Fossey was decided to dedicate her life to the study of animals and no one could stop her. 

Although Fossey's love for animals inspired her to consider veterinarian studies, she struggled with scientifically topics such as chemistry and physics and was dropped out after receiving failing grades. Therefore, Dian Fossey changed her course of action and studied to become an occupational therapist. She received her bachelor's degree from San Jose State College in 1954. She excelled in her career as an occupational therapist since she got along very well with the children she was treating, and in her free time, she would continue to ride and take care of horses.

But how did Dian Fossey make it to Africa to engage in her remarkable conservation work and research? In 1963 after borrowing a large sum of money and using her life savings, she finally realised her lifelong dream and embarked on a trip to Africa. Fossey arrived in Kenya and travelled through Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rhodesia. On the final parts of her journey, she travelled to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania to meet the Leakeys.

Louis Leakey was an expert in primatology at the time and talked to Fossey about the brilliant work that was being done in Africa in the field of science.

Nonetheless, to repay her debts and return to her job, Fossey ventured back to Louisville, Kentucky, USA. After some years, Louis Leakey was involved in a nationwide lecture circuit across the United States sharing his research with others and when in Louisville, he met with Dian Fossey to see how she would feel about studying mountain gorillas in the same way that Jane Goodall was doing with the chimps in Tanzania.

After arranging for funding, Louis Leakey sent Fossey to meet with Goodall in late 1966 to observe Jane Goodall with the chimps and eventually encourage her to do the same research projects with gorillas in the Congo. Though Fossey wanted to start her research in the Congo in 1967, some major setbacks and political unrest forced her to move to Rwanda in the Virungas region.

Establishing her research centre on the foothills of Mount Bisoke, in the Rwandan Virungas, Fossey made her most significant biological discoveries of gorillas in the region. What are some of Fossey's most remarkable findings? Keep on reading to find out more!

The Brilliant Discoveries of Dian Fossey

research and observation
Fossey's little friend, Digit, was one of the gorillas that she observed for many years in Rwanda. (Source: Unsplash)

Having spent 14 years of her life studying the mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Virungas region, even years after her death, Dian Fossey is credited as one of the primary leading experts of gorillas on the African continent.

Her significant contributions to the field of primatology have to lead her to be called one of "The Primates" along with Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees, and Birute Galdikas who observed orangutans.

Nonetheless, what information did Fossey uncover from her close encounters with mountain gorillas for more than a decade and a half? The following are a few of Dian Fossey's most important biological discoveries about gorillas:

  • Mountain Gorillas Have Strong Family Ties: while it was previously recognised that mountain gorillas stay together in troops, through Fossey's hands-on approach, she discovered that gorillas remain close to their families. The maternal bond is shared between a mother gorilla, and her offspring is relatively healthy and similar to the one that humans share.
  • Male and Female Relationships are Solid: through her years of research, Fossey observed that if a male gorilla of the troop dies, the rest of the females will depart to find another dominate male figure.
  • Gorillas Daily Activities: by being always surrounded by gorillas, Fossey recorded that their primary task is to travel in search of food throughout the day. Mountain gorillas eat mostly plants and are considered mainly vegetarian. In the evening, gorillas rest in their night nests created by them using branches and leaves.
  • Communication Between the Troop Members: as a result of practically living with the gorillas, Fossey observed that they communicate to each using moans and hand gestures. For instance, the thumping of the chest is a signal of strength and power, is viewed as authoritative, and can be used to confront male gorillas.
  • Gorillas are Gentle Giants: weighing between 135 and 220 kgs, before the research of Dian Fossey, humans feared mountain gorillas for their sheer size and imposing character. However, Fossey discovered that mountain gorillas are incredibly playful and imitate human behaviours such as tickling and playing with children like children in a school playground.
  • Mountain Gorillas Can Develop Trust in Humans: not as fearful of humans as previously thought, mountain gorillas can develop trust and feel comfortable with humans observing them; even dominate males. Fossey's docile attitude and non-threatening nature contributed to the fact that she could create strong bonds with gorillas. Especially one gorilla in particular named Digit whom she closely followed and researched for ten years.

We could go on and on about all the beautiful things that Dian Fossey did to understand better and appreciate gorillas; however, the previously mentioned points are the most significant. Not only scientists or biologists but also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the tireless efforts of "Trimate" Dian Fossey of the USA.

Dian Fossey and Her Long-Lasting Legacy

where she lay to rest
Although departed, Dian Fossey's legacy remains with us to this very day. (Source: Unsplash)

Though mysteriously and brutally murdered in December 1985, Dian Fossey's continues to live on today. Peers have recognised her as an example to follow in primates and other animals' research. Many reputable outlets also contribute her brilliant research and conservation as the primary reason for reducing the downward population trend in mountain gorillas, which has saved them from extinction.

In the later years of her life, Fossey was a strong advocate against animal poaching in Africa. The death of her dear gorilla friend Digit by poachers forced her to adopt a more aggressive attitude towards those who sought to harm animals such as gorillas for economic gain.

Many biographers and close friends of Fossey believe that her opposition of poachers contributed to her murder. 

Fossey's book Gorillas in the Mist remains the best-selling book about gorillas to this day. The 1988 feature film on which it was based, starring Sigourney Weaver, was nominated for many Academy Awards. Fossey remains a feminist icon in the fields of science and biology for her life of sacrifice in the Rwandan mountains, known for its harsh conditions.

In the aftermath of her death, many research centres and funds worldwide specialising in primatology have been named after her. In all fairness, Dian Fossey was an original that will probably never be replaced. Yet, we are thankful for the time she was with us since she has influenced so many to study gorillas and take conservation seriously.

Need a Biology teacher?

Did you like this article?

5.00/5 - 1 vote(s)


Avid movie-goer, reader, skier and language learner. Passionate about life, food and travelling.