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Earth's Largest Ape Went Extinct Because It Couldn't Adapt To Climate Change

Jan 05, 2016 12:17 PM EST
The Earth's largest apes died off because they could not adapt to a new diet brought on by climate change 100,000 years ago.
(Photo : Flickr: Martin Pettitt)

The largest of ape species, Gigantopithecus, that roamed Earth died out 100,000 years ago when climate change wiped out its preferred diet of forest fruit, replacing it with less nutritious Savannah grasses.

The ten-foot-tall ape – the closest animal to a real-life "King Kong" or "Bigfoot" – weighed as much as 1,102 pounds or five times as much as an adult male. During its reign a million years ago, this ancient primate was restricted to forested areas in southern China and mainland south-east Asia, according to the Daily Mail.

Until now, though, not much else was known about this extinct ancestor of the orangutan. The only fossil records are four partial lower jaws and roughly a thousand teeth, the first of which turned up in the 1930s in Hong Kong apothecaries and were referred to as "dragon's teeth." But these remains are not sufficient to determine the animal's anatomy, physical characteristics and whether it was bipedal or quadrupedal.

In the latest study, researchers from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment in Tübingen and from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt analyzed fossil tooth enamel in the hope's of finding out more about the animal's diet. Researchers discovered that Gigantopithecus were picky eaters who followed a strictly vegetarian diet, making them dependent of fruit bearing trees and forested areas.

When a ice age occurred during the Pleistocene epoch between 2.6 million years and 12,000 years ago, blanketing the Earth with massive glaciers, the habitats the large apes were accustomed to changed dramatically. 

Although other apes and early humans in Africa survived the environmental change, study researcher Herve Bocherens of Tübingen University in Germany believes nature, evolution – and perhaps the refusal to try new foods – ultimately doomed the giant ape. 

"Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food," he added. "When during the Pleistocene, more and more forested area turned into Savannah landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply."

The study was recently published in the journal Quaternary International

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