Why Did the Largest Ape That Ever Lived on Earth Went Extinct?
Gigantopithecus blacki thrived in the tropical forests of what is now southern China for six to nine million years. But around 100,000 years ago, at the beginning of the last of the Pleistocene ice ages, it went extinct—because in the changed climate its size had become a fatal handicap. Gigantopithecus blacki was big.
The primate fossil record suggests that the species Gigantopithecus blacki were the largest known primate species that ever lived. Fossils indicate it stood as high as 10 feet (3 meters) and weighed up to 1200 lbs. (550 kilograms). Its morphology suggests its closest living relatives are orangutans, meaning that African primates such as chimps are more closely related to humans than to Gigantopithecus blacki.
Due to its size, Gigantopithecus blacki presumably depended on a large amount of food. When, during the Pleistocene, more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape. Gigantopithecus blacki, a fruit-eater, failed to adapt to the grass, roots, and leaves that became the dominant food sources in its new environment.
Had it been less gigantic, it might have endured somehow. Relatives of the giant ape, such as the orangutan, have been able to survive despite their specialization on a certain habitat, because they have “a slow metabolism and are able to survive on limited food.” It’s not just that a bigger body requires more food. It’s that “as you get bigger, you tend to have fewer children. That means your population tends to be smaller and more sensitive to fluctuations.”
The first hint of Gigantopithecus blacki’s existence came in 1935, when German paleontologist Gustav von Koenigswald happened upon Gigantopithecus blacki’s molars in a pharmacy in China; the molars were labeled as “dragon teeth,” which practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe can heal a variety of maladies. For years, that was the only trace of the greatest ape that ever lived. Since then, however, researchers have found dozens of teeth and a few partial jaws of Gigantopithecus blacki in several spots in southern China, Vietnam and even India.