"Long before it's in the papers"
January 04, 2016


Super-ape may have been doomed by changing landscape—and own size

Jan. 4, 2016
Courtesy of Senckenberg Research Institute 
and Natural History Museum, University of Tübin­gen
and World Science staff

An ape thought to be the larg­est in Earth’s his­to­ry died out be­cause it could­n’t adapt or get enough food in a chang­ing land­scape about 100,000 years ago, sci­en­tists ar­gue in a new stu­dy.

The gi­ant ape Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus weighed an es­ti­mat­ed 200 to 500 kg, or 400 to 1,111 pounds. That’s up to three times heav­i­er than the larg­est liv­ing spe­cies of go­ril­la, the East­ern low­land go­ril­la.

Estimated size of Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus com­pared to a hu­man. (© H. Boch­er­ens)

Sci­en­tists in Ger­ma­ny from the Un­ivers­ity of Tübin­gen and from the Senck­en­berg Re­search In­sti­tute in Frank­furt ex­am­ined ape’s de­mise in a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Qua­ter­nary In­terna­t­ional

They ar­gue that anal­y­ses of fos­sil tooth enam­el show that the ape could live only in for­ests dur­ing a time when much of the land­scape in its na­tive Asia was turn­ing to sa­van­na.

“When dur­ing the Pleis­to­cene era more and more for­ested ar­eas turned in­to sa­van­na land­scapes, there was simply an in­suf­fi­cient food supply for the gi­ant ape,” said Hervé Boch­er­ens of the Un­ivers­ity of Tübin­gen, one of the au­thors.

It’s un­clear what Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus, an an­ces­tor of the orang­u­tan, ate. Some sci­en­tists as­sume a strictly veg­e­tar­i­an lifestyle, oth­ers con­sid­er the ape a meat ea­ter, and a few be­lieve it ate only bam­boo. 

“Unfortuna­tely, there are very few fos­sil finds of Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus—only a few large teeth and bones from the low­er man­di­ble are known,” said Bocherens. His team’s stu­dy, he added, indica­tes that “Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus was an ex­clu­sive veg­e­tar­i­an, but it did not spe­cial­ize on bam­boo.” 

The teeth stud­ied came from Chi­na and Thai­land—among them the first known fos­sil of Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus, dis­cov­ered by pa­le­oan­thro­po­l­o­gist Gus­tav Hein­rich Ralph von Koe­nigs­wald in 1935 among a col­lec­tion of fos­sils from a Chin­ese phar­ma­cy. 

The re­sults show that the gi­ant ape’s hab­i­tat was re­strict­ed to for­est even though it was probably too heavy to climb trees, the re­search­ers said. This was the case both in Chi­na and Thai­land, where open sa­van­nas would have been avail­a­ble in ad­di­tion to the wood­ed land­scapes.

“Rel­a­tives of the gi­ant ape, such as the re­cent orang­u­tan, have been able to sur­vive de­spite their spe­cial­iz­a­tion on a cer­tain hab­i­tat,” Bocherens not­ed. But “o­rang­u­tans have a slow me­tab­o­lism and are able to sur­vive on lim­it­ed food. Due to its size, Gi­gan­to­pi­the­cus pre­sumably de­pended on a large amount of food.”

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An ape thought to be the largest in Earth’s history died out because it couldn’t adapt or get enough food in a changing landscape about 100,000 years ago, scientists argue in a new study. The giant ape Gigantopithecus weighed an estimated 200 to 500 kg, or 400 to 1,111 pounds. That’s up to three times heavier than the largest living species of gorilla, the Eastern lowland gorilla, not to mention as much as twice as tall, at 3 meters or 10 feet. Scientists in Germany from the University of Tübingen and from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt examined ape’s demise in a study published in the journal Quaternary International. They argue that analyses of fossil tooth enamel show that the ape could live only in forests during a time when much of the landscape in its native Asia was turning to savanna. “When during the Pleistocene era more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape,” said Hervé Bocherens of the University of Tübingen, one of the authors. It’s unclear what Gigantopithecus, an ancestor of the orangutan, ate. Some scientists assume a strictly vegetarian lifestyle, others consider the ape a meat eater, and a few believe it ate only bamboo. “Unfortunately, there are very few fossil finds of Gigantopithecus – only a few large teeth and bones from the lower mandible are known,” said Bocherens. His team’s study, he added, indicates that “Gigantopithecus was an exclusive vegetarian, but it did not specialize on bamboo.” The teeth studied came from China and Thailand – among them the first known fossil of Gigantopithecus, discovered by paleoanthropologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald in 1935 among a collection of fossils from a Chinese pharmacy. The results show that the giant ape’s habitat was restricted to forest even though it was probably too heavy to climb trees, the researchers said. This was the case both in China and Thailand, where open savannas would have been available in addition to the wooded landscapes. “Relatives of the giant ape, such as the recent orangutan, have been able to survive despite their specialization on a certain habitat,” Bocherens noted. But “orangutans have a slow metabolism and are able to survive on limited food. Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food.” size