February 24, 2024

Science: When and how the largest great ape disappeared

Huge but inflexible: With an estimated height of three meters and a weight of up to 300 kilograms, Gigantopithecus blackii was the largest great ape to ever walk the Earth. Based on a comprehensive analysis of previous discoveries, an international research team has now determined when this huge South Asian primate became extinct – and why.

The story of the giant ape's discovery alone sounds adventurous: German paleontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Königswald came across its trace in Hong Kong in 1935 in a pharmacy that was selling a molar as strikingly large as a dragon's tooth. Despite decades of intense research, only four jaw bones and nearly 2,000 individual teeth provide evidence of the species' past existence, the group led by Keira Westaway of Macquarie University in Sydney wrote in the journal Nature.

G. Blacki was the final specialist

The researchers concluded a number of things from this: In addition to size and weight, for example, the great ape lived in forests, especially in the south of what is now China, at least 2.2 million years ago, and ate purely plants. Diet-based diet that disappeared 330,000 years ago. However, such dating has been controversial until now.

For greater clarity, the team for the first time dated finds from 22 caves using six different methods: According to this, G. blacki lived 2.3 million years ago, but disappeared only about 255,000 years ago. Pollen analyzes suggest that the ecology of great apes changed dramatically over the course of 2 million years: while the species flourished and increased in size until about 700,000 years ago, a decline likely occurred after that. Over time, the primary forest with dense treetops gave way to a grassland with fewer trees but rich in ferns. In addition, more distinct classes seem to have developed. The charcoal remains show that it was burned repeatedly and that it also became drier.

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This change had a negative impact on the giant apes' diet, which was primarily based on a lot of fruit and access to water. Analyzes of tooth enamel suggest that G. blacki was unable to adapt to long-term changes – unlike its cousin, the Chinese orangutan (Pongo weidenreichi), which became extinct much later. “Blackie was the ultimate specialist, compared to agile transformers like orangutans, which ultimately led to his downfall,” said co-author Yingqi Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to the research team, the fact that habitats and populations have been greatly reduced is demonstrated by the decline in the number of late-stage sites and fossils. The group suspects that the giant ape's long reproductive period and enormous size, which hampered its movement, may also have contributed to its demise.

However, there is no evidence that human species living in East Asia at the time – such as the Denisovans – were involved, even if such groups were apparently widespread in South Asia at the time. However, the most successful human species had not yet left Africa: Homo sapiens had only just appeared 255,000 years ago.

© dpa-infocom, dpa:240110-99-554878/5