Where Do Gorillas Get Their Vitamin B12?

Termites: The Other, Other White Meat

Vit­a­min B12 is one of the two nutri­ents that are essen­tial for human beings but aren’t avail­able from a pure­ly plant-based diet. The oth­er is vit­a­min D, which isn’t tru­ly a vit­a­min but is a hor­mone that your body can make for itself if you get some bright sun­shine on your skin. Goril­las live in Africa, where there’s no short­age of sun­shine. The inter­est­ing ques­tion is where do they get their vit­a­min B12? Evi­dent­ly, they get it from the insects and oth­er creepy crawlies that they eat. Their favorites are termites—the oth­er, oth­er white meat.

As you can see, the goril­las just dis­man­tle the tree where the ter­mites are. That’s prob­a­bly why they don’t both­er using tools to fish for ter­mites, as chim­panzees do:

Except for vit­a­min D and vit­a­min B12, plants pro­vide all the essen­tial nutri­ents that peo­ple need. Plants con­tain min­er­als, such as cal­ci­um and iron, which they have absorbed from the soil. Plants con­tain all of the oth­er vit­a­mins and essen­tial amino acids, which they have made for their own pur­pos­es. Plants are also the orig­i­nal source of the essen­tial fat­ty acids. How­ev­er, plants don’t make vit­a­min B12, and nei­ther do ani­mals. All of the vit­a­min B12 in nature comes from bac­te­ria.

Some plant-eaters get their sup­ply of vit­a­min B12 from the bac­te­ria in their own diges­tive sys­tem, as long as they are eat­ing some­thing that con­tains the ele­ment cobalt. (Vit­a­min B12 con­tains cobalt). Cat­tle and sheep are par­tic­u­lar­ly good at get­ting vit­a­min B12 from their own gut bac­te­ria. They have a lot of bac­te­r­i­al fer­men­ta­tion going on in their stom­achs, so the vit­a­min B12 is made before the food pass­es through the part of the intes­tine where the vit­a­min B12 gets absorbed. Such ani­mals are called “foregut fer­menters.”

Oth­er species, includ­ing rab­bits and goril­las and human beings, are “hindgut fer­menters.” Their gut bac­te­ria make vit­a­min B12, but only after the food has passed through the part of the intes­tine where the vit­a­min B12 can get absorbed. Rab­bits solve this prob­lem by eat­ing some of their own drop­pings. Wild moun­tain goril­las some­times do the same thing, usu­al­ly dur­ing peri­ods of bad weath­er. Cap­tive goril­las do it a lot more often, pos­si­bly because they are bored.

On the oth­er hand, goril­las and human beings can eat foods that already con­tain ready-made vit­a­min B12. For goril­las, that means tasty, tasty ter­mites, which get vit­a­min B12 from their own gut bac­te­ria. Mod­ern human beings who don’t want to eat ter­mites, or any oth­er ani­mal prod­ucts, can get their vit­a­min B12 from a nice, clean, and very cheap sup­ple­ment. As long as their gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem is healthy, peo­ple can even take their vit­a­min B12 by mouth. Vit­a­min B12 shots are use­ful for peo­ple who have trou­ble absorb­ing vit­a­min B12 from their food, because of gas­troin­testi­nal dis­ease.

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