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Gorilla Foundation Press Release: Nov. 2, 2009


Joanna Kulesa
Kulesa Faul, Inc./for The Gorilla Foundation
(408) 806-9201

Penny speaks
  Dr. Penny Patterson, President
Research on the Gifted Signing Gorilla Michael
Captivates Primatologists
Presented at the American Society of Primatologists (ASP) Annual Conference

Redwood City, CA – Nov. 2, 2009 — The extraordinary legacy of the multilingual silverback gorilla, Michael, drew keen attention from numerous participants at this year’s annual conference of the American Society of Primatologists (ASP.) The Gorilla Foundation’s Dr. Penny Patterson and colleagues spearheaded a panel and roundtable discussion that brought together international researchers involved in leading-edge studies of the brain and behavior of humans, great apes and other mammals.

KokoTeach DVD
The late silverback, Michael, relaxing

The implications of the studies discussed at the “Learning From Michael” symposium in September 2009 could have far-reaching positive implications for the care and enrichment of captive gorillas and advance worldwide gorilla conservation efforts. Dialogues begun at the ASP conference will inform a series of workshops and public lectures that the Gorilla Foundation is planning to host in 2010.

Michael, a Western Lowland gorilla, grew up alongside Koko, his famous surrogate sister. As a participant in the longest-running ongoing interspecies communication and education project, he spent his days signing, painting, listening to and making music and creating vivid works of representational and abstract art. When he unexpectedly passed away at the age of 27 in April 2000, Michael had a vocabulary of more than 500 American Sign Language (ASL) signs and understood spoken English. A capable storyteller, he had been able to movingly describe in sign the brutal murder of his family which took place years earlier at the hands of poachers.

Neurobiologists studying Michael after his death have discovered, among other things, that Michael had a remarkable array of large spindle-shaped neurons known as Von Economo Neurons or VENs in brain regions involved in higher order integration of cognitive and emotional processes. Among primates, these large neurons have only been found in great apes and humans, though they have also recently been noted in whales and elephants. Michael’s brain contained a greater number of VENs than any other nonhuman primate studied to date, a number close to that appearing in some humans.

KokoTeach DVD
Dr. Penny Patterson presenting

The Gorilla Foundation’s Penny Patterson, University of St. Andrews researcher and former Gorilla Foundation volunteer Dr. Joanne Tanner and Biosynergy Institute founder and Gorilla Foundation conservation director Dr. Anthony L. Rose held participants spellbound with a joint presentation about Michael’s life and remarkable abilities entitled “Remembering Michael: A Gifted Gorilla.” Their research suggests that Michael developed extraordinary cognitive, social and emotional abilities due to at least three key factors: his many synergistic social relationships with humans, his exposure to complex multilingual communication, and the artistic and musical enrichment he was provided at the Gorilla Foundation.

Other distinguished scientists on the panel included Dr. Joseph Erwin (Foundation for Comparative & Conservation Biology), Dr. Patrick Hof (Mt. Sinai School of Medicine), Dr. John Allman, Dr. Soyoung Park, & Dr. Atiya Hakeem (California Institute of Technology), William Hopkins (Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University) and Chet Sherwood (George Washington University.) 

To request more information about research on Michael, or to speak with a spokesperson from the Gorilla Foundation please contact: joanna@kulesafaul.com.   Photos and more background information on Michael may be found at  koko.org/michael.

KokoTeach DVD
What Made Michael Gifted?

1) Unique Life: Different from other Apes

2) Highly Enriched Sanctuary Environment

3) Synergistic Social Relationships

4) Complex Multilingual Communication

5) Appreciated and Created Art and Music

Presenters at the Remembering Michael Session (left to right):
Drs: Penny Patterson, Joanne Tanner, Patrick Hof, Joseph Erwin, Anthony Rose, Jaak Panksepp,
John Allman, Atiya Hakeem, and Soyoung Park

About The Gorilla Foundation
The Gorilla Foundation is dedicated to the preservation, protection and well being of gorillas through interspecies communication research and education: Conservation through Communication. The foundation was established in 1976 and is best known for its groundbreaking work with two western lowland gorillas, Koko and Michael, who were taught to become fluent in American Sign Language. The results are published in numerous research papers, books and videos available in our bibliography.

The Gorilla Foundation's current goals include: 1) establishing the Maui Ape Preserve — the first tropical gorilla sanctuary outside of Africa; 2) saving gorillas from extinction by extending the empathy created through interspecies communication worldwide; and 3) helping Koko fulfill her wish of having a baby, so that she can transmit her language skills to the next generation and thus ensure that there will always be a gorilla ambassador who can speak to us in our own language. We still have much to learn from this critically endangered sentient species.

The Gorilla Foundation is a non-profit 501c3 corporation and is underwritten by donations from individuals, grants from foundations and corporations, and educational product sales. The Foundation receives no support from government sources. Donate here.


© Copyright 2009 The Gorilla Foundation / Koko.org