April 1, 2010— -- The harsh lowlands of the African Congo are almost the last place you'd expect to find former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Mireya Mayor.
Mayor traded the sidelines long ago to become a primatologist and National Geographic explorer. Her latest gig was studying one of the most mysterious animals on the planet: the western lowlands gorilla.
"They're very elusive animals, very difficult to habituate to humans," she said. "We finally have this incredible opportunity...to get close and to get a really intimate portrait of what a day in the life of these animals are [like]. ...It's very much like peeking into your neighbor's window or watching a soap opera."
Like any juicy soap opera, this drama has a lead performer: the group's leader, a massive silverback named Kingo.
"Where Kingo wants to go, he goes and we get out of the way," Mayor joked.
The 30-something silverback weighed in at 350 pounds and developed quite a following. A harem of four women traveled everywhere he went: one with a newborn, two with young sons.
But Kingo's amorous urges keep him on the prowl for even more women. He's constantly trying to lure them away from other silverbacks and scare off the other men from stealing his ladies.
"He heard another male silverback in the distance, and he just got tensed up," Mayor said before the standoff that ensued.
Kingo must hold his ground because another silverback could kill his children. He was on edge, and ready for a fight.
"They are very powerful animals. I mean, they're all muscle. And potentially, if he wanted to literally rip my head off, he could," Mayor said.
The risk for Mayor and other researchers is worth the reward: a chance to find out how the 100,000 or so lowland gorillas live in their lush habitat.
Up Close and Personal With Elusive Species
Recent research has shown the numbers of gorillas are stronger than ever known before, but the species is still vulnerable. Loss of habitat from logging, illegal hunting, and disease claim countless gorillas each year.
At Mbeli Bai -- a marshy clearing in the jungle -- dozens of gorillas gather where the food is plentiful. There, Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Thomas Breuer, captured never-before-seen images of a female gorilla, making and using a tool.
Breuer watched as the female gorilla, Lea, broke off a branch and used it to measure and gauge the depth of the swamp, which requires forethought and planning, and used it as a walking stick to get across the pond the way humans would.
Mayor says that's proof that these mysterious animals are smarter than we ever knew -- even if some of their behavior, like gang fights, seems decidedly boneheaded.
"Picture this little gang of teenagers, and they see this one lone silverback and they think, 'right, we can outnumber him,' so they start messing with him," Mayor said. "The one that picks the fight and is trying to show off in front of his buddies is the one that gets injured. And if you see his face, if you play that in slow motion which I did, it's quite funny because he comes out quite cocky and then by the end of it he's just looking down and almost doesn't look at me. His ego was, I think, more bruised than the injury he suffered."
Gorillas' family structure also fascinates Mayor; specifically, the role of women in gorilla families. While they may seem docile and submissive, females have the ultimate power: they can say 'no' to mating with hulking silverbacks.
"The question of female choice is really a hot topic in primatology. But the females, they're not just following blindly. They have the ability to make choices, such as not mating with the silverback, such as leaving the group," Mayor said. "And all of their choices influence the silverback's ability to lead, and that, in sum, is power."
It happened to Kingo. One of his ladies wandered off and left the group. She came back, just as Mayor hopes to do one day to continue tracking Kingo and his harem and learn even more about an animal we know so little about.