Standing over 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) tall, Gigantopithecus blacki was the largest species of primate to ever walk the Earth (at least that we know of). This elusive beast stomped around modern-day China until it fell into extinction between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago under mysterious circumstances.
In a new study, scientists investigate why the giant ape met an untimely demise, concluding that the species struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
The first evidence of Gigantopithecus came in 1935 when anthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald came across an unusual specimen in a traditional Chinese drugstore in Hong Kong. Labeled as "dragon teeth," von Koenigswald discovered the molars belonged to an unidentified species of extinct ape he called Gigantopithecus.
Even today, just 2,000 fossilized teeth and four jawbones are the only evidence of their existence, meaning we have little idea of what they truly looked like.
G. blacki is sometimes called the “real-life King Kong” owing to its gargantuan size, although it is more closely related to orangutans from the Ponginae family. If you’ve seen the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, the figure of King Louie is said to have been based on G. blacki.
“The Jungle Book basically made him a large orangutan. We don't know how much G. blacki would have looked like an orangutan but it was definitely a Pongine, so in the right family. As for the orange fur – we really don't know,” Associate Professor Kira Westaway, a researcher at Macquarie University whose new study investigated the extinction of G. blacki, told IFLScience.
To learn about the disappearance of the species, Westaway and a vast team of researchers explored 22 caves in China’s Guangxi Province to collect samples of pollen, fossils, and sediment.
Their discoveries showed that the environment was made up of dense forests with heavy cover around 2.3 million years ago, which was ideal for G. blacki and the jungle’s other primate inhabitants, orangutans (Pongo weidenreichi).
However, around 600,000 years ago, the environment became more variable due to the increase in the strength of the seasons, causing a change in the types of plants growing in the forest. While this change suited orangutans, it proved to be a challenge for G. blacki.
“The environmental changes that started at around 600,000 years ago really accentuated the adaption capabilities of G. blacki vs P. weidenreichi (orangutans). The more seasonal climate created dry periods when fruits were difficult to find. G. blacki relied on a less nutritious fall back food such as bark and twigs whereas P. weidenreichi was more flexible in its fall back food, eating shoots, leaves, flowers, nuts, seeds, and even insects and small mammals,” Westaway explained to IFLScience.
Ultimately, the sheer size of G. blacki became its downfall. In changing times like these, it pays to be agile and mobile, which isn't too easy when you’re 3 meters tall and weigh up to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).
“G. blacki's range for foraging was restricted by its size but P. weidenreichi was more mobile, travelling in the canopy for longer distances allowing a greater range for foraging. G. blacki stayed in the forest whereas P. weidenreichi was able to move into more open forest environments. Surprisingly G. blacki even increased in size during this time, while P. weidenreichi decreased in size and became a more agile adapter,” she added.
The study is published in the journal Nature.