Research has shown that the world's largest primate has become extinct due to climate change

Research has shown that the world's largest primate has become extinct due to climate change

Gigantopithecus blackie It was three meters long, weighed up to 300 kilograms, and flourished in the forests of South Asia until just over 200,000 years ago. The monkeys resembled what we know today as orangutans, and they chewed fruits and flowers in the tropical forests.

The exact cause of the great ape's death after living a good life for hundreds of thousands of years has been one of the great mysteries of paleontology ever since a German researcher found an ape tooth in a Hong Kong pharmacy in the 1930s.

The tooth was so large that it was sold under the “Dragon Tooth” label.

– Reno Guan Boyao, a researcher at Southern Cross University in Australia, told AFP that its teeth were three to four times larger than those of any other great ape.

– That fascinated the researcher, and from here all our investigations began.

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Jaw bones and teeth

Joan Boyao is one of the co-authors of a new study in Nature about great primates.

All that has been found for the Gigantopithecus monkey as a single tooth is four incomplete jaw bones and about 2,000 teeth. No complete skeletons have been found. Several hundred teeth were found inside caves in southern China's Guangxi Province.

Even after decades of excavations in these caves, it was difficult to determine why the ape had not been found, according to study co-author Yingqi Zhang of the China Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

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Two million years

In an attempt to determine a timeline of the animal's existence, researchers from China, Australia and the United States collected fossilized teeth from 22 caves.

They used six different techniques to determine the age of the fossils, including a relatively new method that can estimate the last time the minerals were exposed to sunlight.

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The oldest teeth date back more than two million years, while the newest ones date back about 250,000 years.

In addition, samples of pollen and sediment from the caves were examined.

This work has led to researchers finally being able to tell the full story about the giant's extinction, according to Zhang.

Seasons have changed

They determined that the ape's “extinction window” was between 215,000 and 295,000 years ago, an earlier time than hitherto assumed.

During this period, the seasons became more separated from each other, changing the local environment. The dense, lush forest in which Gigantopithecus flourished began to give way to more open forests and grasslands.

This increasingly deprived the monkeys of their favorite food: fruit. Because of their size, the monkeys were stuck to the ground.

– It was a huge animal, simply very huge. When food became scarce, it was difficult to climb trees to explore new food sources, says Guan Boyao.

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Instead, they had to make do with less nutritious reserve foods, such as bark and twigs, says co-author Keira Westaway of Macquarie University in Australia.

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This was a mistake on the part of the monkeys that eventually led to the extinction of this species, according to Zhang.

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To big

The size of primates also made it difficult for them to walk long distances to find food, and their enormous size meant that they needed large amounts of food.

Despite the challenges, the giant apes got larger during this period, Westaway says. But there were fewer and fewer of them. By analyzing the teeth, the researchers were able to measure the increasing pressure the monkeys were exposed to as their numbers dwindled.

They also compared the fate of Gigantopithecus to that of its orangutan relative, Pongo weidenreichi, which coped better with the impact of a changing climate on its environment.

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It took a long time

Orangutans were smaller and more agile, and were able to move quickly across the forest canopy to gather food such as leaves, flowers, nuts, seeds, and even insects and small mammals.

They got smaller over time, thriving while their massive, giant cousin starved.

Westaway stresses that it is important to understand why the fate of Gigantopithecus blacki turned out the way it did.

– Especially given the threat of a sixth mass extinction looming over us, she says.

Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

"Explorer. Unapologetic entrepreneur. Alcohol fanatic. Certified writer. Wannabe tv evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Student. Web scholar. Travel buff."

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