The largest primate ever to walk the Earth went extinct because it could not adapt to its changing environment, with the mighty beast reduced to living off bark and twigs before dying off, scientists said on Wednesday.
Exactly why the great ape died off after flourishing for hundreds of thousands of years has been one of the lasting mysteries of paleontology ever since German scientist G.H.R. von Koenigswald first stumbled on one of its teeth at a Hong Kong apothecary in the 1930s.
The molar was so massive it was being sold as a “dragon’s tooth.”
“It was three to four times bigger than the teeth from any great ape,” Renaud Joannes-Boyau, a researcher at Australia’s Southern Cross University, told Agence France-Presse.
“That intrigued him and that’s where all this research started,” said Joannes-Boyau, a co-author of a new study in the journal Nature.
All that has been found of the Gigantopithecus since are four partial jawbones and around 2,000 teeth, hundreds of which were discovered inside caves in southern China‘s Guangxi province.
Even after a decade of excavations in these caves, the cause of the ape’s extinction remained elusive, said the study’s co-lead author Yingqi Zhang of China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.
Seeking to establish a timeline of the animal’s existence, the team of Chinese, Australian and U.S. scientists collected fossilized teeth from 22 caves.
The team used six different techniques to determine the age of the fossils, including a relatively new method called luminescence dating which measures the last time minerals were exposed to sunlight.
The oldest teeth dated back more than 2 million years, while the most recent were from around 250,000 years ago.
Now the researchers can tell “the complete story about Gigantopithecus’ extinction” for the first time, Zhang told AFP in his office in Beijing.
Huge animal made a “huge mistake”
They established that the animal’s “extinction window” was between 215,000 and 295,000 years ago, significantly earlier than previously thought.
During this time, the seasons were becoming more pronounced, which was changing the local environment.
The thick, lush forest that Gigantopithecus had thrived in was starting to give way to more open forests and grassland.
This increasingly deprived the ape of its favorite food: fruit.
The huge animal was bound to the ground, unable swing into the trees for higher food.
Instead, it “relied on less nutritious fallback food such as bark and twigs,” said Kira Westaway, a geochronologist at Australia’s Macquarie University and co-lead author.
Zhang said this was a “huge mistake” which ultimately led to the animal’s extinction.
“Ultimately its struggle to adapt led to the extinction of the greatest primate to ever inhabit the Earth,” the study’s authors wrote.
The primate’s size made it difficult to go very far to search for food — and its massive bulk meant that it needed plenty to eat.
Despite these challenges, “surprisingly G. blacki even increased in size during this time,” Westaway said.
By analyzing its teeth, the researchers were able to measure the increasing stress the ape was under as its numbers shrunk.
Proteins detected in a Gigantopithecus fossil showed that its closest living relative is the Bornean orangutan, according to a 2019 analysis.
“It would have been a distant cousin (of orangutans), in the sense that its closest living relatives are orangutans, compared to other living great apes such as gorillas or chimpanzees or us,” Dr. Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen, told BBC News in 2019.
For the new study, researchers compared Gigantopithecus’ fate to its orangutan relative, Pongo weidenreichi, which handled the changing environment far better.
The orangutan was smaller and more agile, able to move swiftly through the forest canopy to gather a variety of food such as leaves, flowers, nuts, seeds and even insects and small mammals.
It became even smaller over time, thriving as its massive cousin Gigantopithecus starved.
Westaway emphasized that it was important to understand the fate of the species that came before us — particularly “with the threat of a sixth mass extinction event looming over us.”
Between around 2 million and 22 million years ago, several dozen species of great apes inhabited Africa, Europe and Asia, fossil records show. Today, only gorillas, chimpanzees,, orangutans and humans remain.
While the first humans emerged in Africa, scientists don’t know on which continent the great ape family first arose, said Rick Potts, who directs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was not involved in the study.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.