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February 24, 2024

Extinction of “King Kong” Ape Gigantopithecus Solved After Puzzling Scientists for Decades

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Jan 12, 2024

Scientists believe they have finally uncovered why Gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived, went extinct hundreds of thousands of years ago. This giant primate stood over 10 feet tall and weighed up to 1,200 pounds, living in what is now China up until as recently as 300,000 years ago.

Key Finding: Failure to Adapt to Changing Environment Doomed Massive Ape

A new study published this week in the journal Nature reveals that Gigantopithecus likely died out due to an inability to adapt to rapid changes in climate and environment that impacted the availability of its food sources. An analysis of chemical traces in the ape’s fossilized teeth shows that it relied predominantly on fruit and other soft, sugary foods.

As Pleistocene era glacial cycles and tectonic activity altered the landscape in southern China, the forests that supplied Gigantopithecus with its essential nutrition disappeared. The study concludes that the giant ape – which would stand over twice the height of a human male today – was specialized on these fruits and simply couldn’t adjust quickly enough.

Lead study author Jingzhe Meng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences explains:

“Our evidence points to Gigantopithecus being a specialist feeder, which likely gave it an evolutionary advantage for millions of years. But eventually, the accelerating Pleistocene changes overwhelmed it.”

Jack Tamisiea, paleoclimatologist at the Scripps Institute, summarizes it neatly on Twitter:

“A classic story. Species evolves traits optimal for existing clim/enviro, those conditions change rapidly, species can’t keep up.”

So in a nutshell, the King Kong-like Gigantopithecus was well-equipped to thrive under specifics kinds of interglacial conditions in southeast Asia. But the arrival of dramatic climate fluctuations – which modified vegetation and reduced forests – upended a delicate evolutionary balance.

Timeline Leading Up to Downfall of Extraordinary Megafauna

Gigantopithecus fossils were first discovered in southern China in 1935. Since then, scientists have uncovered about 1,000 specimens – mostly fragmented teeth and jawbones. Reconstructions indicate the animal stood as high as 10 feet on two legs and weighed over 1,100 pounds. This chart shows how it compares with other large primates:

Species Height Weight
Gigantopithecus 10 ft 1,100 lbs
Gorillas 5-6 ft 300-500 lbs
Modern Humans 5-6 ft 100-200 lbs

These remains also revealed that Gigantopithecus had an outsized role in its ecosystem as the dominant predator occupying an ecological niche similar to that now held by bears in Asia.

For decades, the reason behind its abrupt extinction has remained an intriguing mystery. The last of the species died out sometime between two and three hundred thousand years ago. Scientists knew that major environmental transformations occurred in southeastern Asia during those times as part of a trend towards global cooling. Glaciers advanced repeatedly across the Northern Hemisphere and sea levels fell dramatically. The connection seemed clear, but no definitive link with the localized food web had been established.

As a 2017 overview in Scientific American framed the enduring puzzle:

“The jury is out on why this unusual apelike creature died after surviving for roughly nine million years. Its demise seemingly coincides with environmental instability and the arrival of our genus Homo in the region. But researchers remain unsure whether climate change, intensified volcanic activity or human interactions drove Gigantopithecus to extinction.”

This new report in Nature finally provides that missing fossil evidence connecting rapid ecosystem changes with the Gigantopithecus diet specifically – and thus explaining its shocking collapse.

Innovative Tooth Analysis Methods Reveal Startling Dietary Dependence

For this study, an international team led by Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology researcher Jingzhe Meng analyzed tooth enamel from four Gigantopithecus specimens found at a site south of Yangtze River in Chongzuo, Guangxi Province of China.

The team used a laser and other microscale instruments to reveal growth lines and microscopic structural characteristics in the ancient teeth. Researchers also examined stable carbon and oxygen isotopes deposited in the tooth enamel during each animal’s lifetime. This told them what types of plants the individuals ate and tracked any dietary variations from season to season or due to relocation.

“It’s remarkable that after nearly 90 years since the first Gigantopithecus fossils were found, we can use the latest technologies to answer questions about the biology of this mysterious, long-extinct species,” notes co-author Deng Cheng.

Surprising Results Point to Narrow, Specialized Menu

The results clearly show that these gigantic apes consistently focused their feeding on just a few species of sugar-rich fruits. Further, they maintained this limited diet irrespective of climatic shifts within their lifetimes that caused seasonal or environmental changes.

In essence, Gigantopithecus bet its entire existence on a consistent supply of a narrow range of foods. When that mainstay disappeared due to expanding grasslands, altered rainfall, and other massive habitat pressures, the giant primate rapidly faded to extinction.

Professor Herve Bocherens elaborates on the implications:

“We might have expected dietary plasticity over its long existence, perhaps shifting to leaves like modern great apes. But our findings suggest that Gigantopithecus doubled down on what it knew best, leaving it doomed when humans and climate change later had other plans.”

Next Phase: More Clues Hidden in Unusual Enamel?

Looking ahead, the IVPP-led team has already secured funding to continue exploring Gigantopithecus biology through tooth analysis. They are particularly intrigued by its strangely thick enamel coating, which appears almost double that of other great apes. What evolutionary purpose did this massive enamel volume serve when food was abundant? Could it indicate properties about Gigantopithecus dentition and overall physiology that fueled its rise to exceptional size?

The group now aims to perform similar high-powered microscopy, isotope tracing, and 3D imaging techniques on additional specimens scattered across museum collections in China and Europe.

Professor Meng hints at the next wave of revelations:

“The unusual thickness is quite curious. Combined with evidence of its specialized fruit-eating behavior, it leads us to wonder whether Gigantopithecus had some unique adaptations perhaps around fermenting and processing foods that entitled it to grow so large.”

Only time and further research will uncover more of the secrets held in the ancient teeth of Earth’s past monster King Kong. For now, the mystery of the mighty ape’s extinction has finally been put to rest.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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