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Video: An Interspecies Flying Lesson

Would you be curious and excited if, out on a walk near your home, you came face-to-face with a young owl, not yet a confident flyer?

Mountain gorilla Rafiki, at age 11, certainly was — as we see in thisshort video clip that surfaced online earlier this year on YouTube's Wild Things channel. It's from a documentary shot in the 1990s in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa's Democratic Republic of Congo.

Do you notice how focused Rafiki's attention is, and how gentle are his movements? This is an incredibly strong young male, yet even when he shakes a branch with great purpose in a display toward the owl, his motions are contained. There's great intelligence at work here.

The owl isn't yet skilled in the air but, finally, is spurred to make a move. The interaction becomes a spontaneous, interspecies flying lesson, if you will.

The clip is from the documentary film Mountain Gorilla: A Shattered Kingdomthe owl excerpt begins at about 16:35.

Another fascinating segment, beginning around 3:40, shows Rafiki and his younger brother responding with distress to the body of their father, who had died of old age.

For decades, we have known from primate studies that gorillas are smart, reflective, and mostly gentle. The various ways those qualities play out in everyday life, we're still learning, even as mountain gorillas remain critically endangered in the wild.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
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