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What happened to 10-foot tall primates that once lived in China?

A study led by an international team of researchers is shedding new light on the mystery of Gigantopithecus blacki, a giant prehistoric primate that once lived in what is now southern China.

The species is known from its teeth and mandibles found in cave sites. The fossils suggest it was the largest primate ever, with estimates of its size ranging from about 1.8 to 3 meters in height (5.9 to 9.8 feet) and weighing around 250 kilograms (551 pounds).

Study background 

“The largest ever primate and one of the largest of the southeast Asian megafauna, Gigantopithecus blacki, persisted in China from about 2.0 million years until the late middle Pleistocene when it became extinct,” wrote the researchers.

“Its demise is enigmatic considering that it was one of the few Asian great apes to go extinct in the last 2.6 million years, whereas others, including orangutan, survived until the present.”

“The cause of the disappearance of G. blacki remains unresolved but could shed light on primate resilience and the fate of megafauna in this region.”

Unknown cause of extinction 

Gigantopithcus blacki – a very distant human ancestor – went extinct before humans arrived in the region. The cause of this extinction has been a burning question among scientists.

The study has now revealed that Gigantopithcus blacki went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago as a result of climate change. The experts report that these primates were unable to adapt their behavior and food preferences to survive shifting environmental conditions. 

An enigma in paleontology

“The story of G. blacki is an enigma in paleontology – how could such a mighty creature go extinct at a time when other primates were adapting and surviving? The unresolved cause of its disappearance has become the Holy Grail in this discipline,” said study co-lead author Professor Yingqi Zhang, from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IVPP).

“The IVPP has been excavating for G. blacki evidence in this region for over 10 years but without solid dating and a consistent environmental analysis, the cause of its extinction had eluded us.”

Focus of the study

The researchers analyzed new evidence from a large-scale project conducted in 22 cave sites spread across the Guangxi Province in southern China.

“It’s a major feat to present a defined cause for the extinction of a species, but establishing the exact time when a species disappears from the fossil record gives us a target time frame for an environmental reconstruction and behavior assessment,” said study co-lead author Professor Kira Westaway, a geochronologist at Macquarie University. “Without robust dating, you are simply looking for clues in the wrong places.”

How the research was conducted 

The team used multiple techniques to date the collected samples. Researchers at Southern Cross University analyzed G. blacki teeth to gain a better understanding of the apes’ behavior. 

Experts at ANU and Flinders University studied the pollen and fossil bearing sediments in the cave where the primates once thrived.

“By direct-dating the fossil remains, we confirmed their age aligns with the luminescence sequence in the sediments where they were found, giving us a comprehensive and reliable chronology for the extinction of G. blacki,” said study co-author Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau.

Environmental conditions and behavior 

Based on their detailed analyses, the researchers were able to establish the environmental conditions leading up to when G blacki went extinct. They also modeled the primate’s behavior using trace element and dental microwear textural analysis (DMTA) of the teeth.

“Teeth provide a staggering insight into the behavior of the species indicating stress, diversity of food sources, and repeated behaviors,” said Professor Joannes-Boyau.

Key findings 

The experts determined that Gigantopithecus blacki went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago, which is much earlier than previously thought. Up until this time, these primates flourished in a rich and diverse forest.

The researchers found that when the environment became more variable, the structure of the forest communities changed and their food preferences became unavailable. 

As a result, the giant primates grew reliant on a less nutritious back up food source. The apes ultimately became less mobile, had a reduced geographic range for foraging, and faced chronic stress and dwindling numbers.

Study implications 

“G. blacki was the ultimate specialist, compared to the more agile adapters like orangutans,  and this ultimately led to its demise,” said Professor Zhang.

“With the threat of a sixth mass extinction event looming over us, there is an urgent need to understand why species go extinct,” said Professor Westaway.

“Exploring the reasons for past unresolved extinctions gives us a good starting point to understand primate resilience and the fate of other large animals, in the past and future.”

The study is published in the journal Nature

Image Credit: Garcia/Joannes-Boyau (Southern Cross University

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