Palaeontology: Why Gigantopithecus blacki died - Triops Galaxy

Palaeontology: This is why Gigantopithecus blacki died

It was considered the giant among the great apes: Gigantopithecus blacki, estimated at around three metres tall and weighing up to 300 kilograms, was probably the largest primate ever to have existed on Earth. But it was precisely this imposing size that proved to be its fate. A new study has now shed light on when and why this colossus became extinct among the great apes.

G. blacki existed 2.3 million years ago

The story of the giant ape’s discovery reads like an adventure: German palaeontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald stumbled across his discovery in a pharmacy in Hong Kong in 1935. A strikingly large molar was offered for sale there as a dragon’s tooth. Despite intensive searches over decades, only four jawbones and almost 2,000 individual teeth from this primate are known to date, as Kira Westaway from Macquarie University in Sydney reports in the journal Nature.

Researchers have already gained some insights from these finds, including information on the ape’s size, weight and dietary habits. It was assumed that Gigantopithecus blacki lived in the forests, mainly in southern China, at least 2.2 million years ago, ate a purely plant-based diet and died out around 330,000 years ago. However, such dating has been controversial until now. In order to clarify the situation, the research team dated the layers of artefacts from 22 caves using six different methods. The results show that G. blacki already existed 2.3 million years ago, but only became extinct around 255,000 years ago.

Pollen analyses indicate that the environment of the giant apes changed significantly over the course of two million years: the original jungle with its dense tree canopy gave way to a grassy landscape with fewer trees but more ferns. In addition, there were apparently more pronounced seasons and more frequent fires, which indicates increasing aridity. These environmental changes had a negative impact on the diet of the giant apes, which lived mainly on fruit, and affected their access to water. Tooth enamel analyses suggest that G. blacki was unable to adapt permanently to these changes, unlike its cousin, the Chinese orangutan (Pongo weidenreichi), which became extinct much later.

Enormous size contributed significantly to the extinction

The great apes flourished until about 700,000 years ago and even increased in body size before a decline set in. Co-author of the studies, Yingqi Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, explains: “G. blacki was the ultimate specialist compared to agile adaptable species such as orangutans, and this ultimately led to its demise.” The research team cites the decreasing number of sites and fossils in the late phase as evidence of the decline.

Possibly contributing to the extinction of the giant ape were its presumably long reproductive period and its enormous size, which impaired mobility. However, there is no evidence that the human species living in East Asia at the time, such as Denisova man, were involved in the demise of G. blacki, although such groups apparently existed in South Asia at the time. At this time, Homo sapiens, the ultimately most successful Homo species, had not yet left Africa and had only just emerged some 255,000 years ago.

Sladjan Lazic

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