Giant Apes Went Extinct for Refusing to Change Their Diet

January 7, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

King Kong
Photo credit: skeeze/Pixabay (CC0)

They died out over 100,000 years ago.

According to a new study out of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) in Tübingen and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, the giant ape, Gigantopithecus, died out due to its unwillingness to adapt.

Gigantopithecus were huge — much, much larger than modern day humans—- averaging between six and ten feet tall, and weighing between 400 and 1100 pounds.  There are several theories regarding the diet of these giant apes.  Some scientists believe they had a strictly vegetarian diet, while others consider that they were meat eaters.  There are also a small few who believe the diet of the giant ape was exclusively limited to bamboo.

“Unfortunately, there are very few fossil finds of Gigantopithecus — only a few large teeth and bones from the lower mandible are known,” explained Dr. Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for HEP.

The team examined the fossils of the giant ape’s tooth enamel to determine its diet, and potentially, what led to its extinction.  “Our results indicate that the large primates only lived in the forest and obtained their food from this habitat,” said Bocherens.  “Gigantopithecus was an exclusive vegetarian, but it did not specialize on bamboo.”

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They studied the carbon isotopes in the tooth enamel which surprisingly revealed information about the ape’s diet — even after so much time passed.  The teeth came from China and Thailand, which is where the first record of Gigantopithecus came from — discovered by Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald in 1935.

It turns out giant apes were restricted to forested areas even though they are considered to have been too large to climb trees.  “In order to be able to comprehend the evolutionary history of primates, it is important to take a look at their diet,” explained Bocherens.  “Our results also contribute to a better understanding of the reasons that led to the giant ape's extinction.”

The combination of Gigantopithecus’ size, as well as their habitat restriction, is more than likely what led to their extinction.  Based on their size, the giant ape probably needed a large amount of food to survive, and with their habitat persistently turning into savanna landscapes, there was more than likely an insufficient food supply.

It is hard to know whether Gigantopithecus could have been able to adapt to a changing climate but didn’t, or whether it was doomed from the start, “But now, we were able to shed a little light on the obscure history of this primate,” said Bocherens.  

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