Gigantopithecus Extinction: What Killed Off The Real-Life ‘King Kong’?

The only evidence around to mark the existence of the Gigantopithecus are four lower jawbones and about a thousand teeth. Yet these fossils provide an important clue about the now-extinct great ape — specifically, why there are no Gigantopithecus around today.

Scientists believe the Gigantopithecus is likely the largest ape ever to have walked the Earth. Some people refer to the animal as a real-life “King Kong.” Others compare it to Bigfoot. The creatures were most prominent “a million years ago,” according to Back then, the Gigantopithecus was thought to have roamed through “semi-tropical forests in southern China and mainland Southeast Asia.”

There is no definitive description of what long-extinct Gigantopithecus looked like. It’s believed the apes grew to a height of nine to ten feet and weighed the equivalent of five adult human males. Scientists think the closest living relative to the Gigantopithecus would be the orangutan, which may or may not bear a close resemblance to the species. It’s possible that their fur was reddish, but scientists don’t rule out black or brown colors.

In short, the Gigantopithecus remains something of an enigma. This has been true for the species ever since the species was discovered in 1930s Hong Kong. Back then, their teeth were sold in Hong Kong apothecaries as “Dragon’s Teeth.” There was nothing dragonish about the fossils, but they were certainly an amazing find for scientists.

Only now have they truly started to unlock the secrets behind the Gigantopithecus, and why the largest apes thought to have ever existed died out 100,000 years ago. The teeth they left behind seem to offer up a surprisingly simple explanation for their extinction: A refusal to adapt their diets during a window of abrupt climate change.

As reported by the Daily Mail, research was conducted by scientists from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment or HEP, Tübingen and from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. The researchers carefully studied the enamel of the Gigantopithecus teeth to better understand how it ate. Some believe the Gigantopithecus was strictly vegetarian while others think the great ape was possibly a meat-eater. That both theories are true is also a possibility.

Upon careful examination of the teeth, it was determined that the Gigantopithecus ran into a massive problem. Because of the animal’s size, it would have to consume quite a bit of food each day to stay healthy. Herve Bocheren explained to the AFP that “during the Pleistocene, more and more forested area turned into savannah landscapes.” The Gigantopithecus had a choice — to adapt to the changing landscape and seek new food sources, or slowly wither away into extinction. The species stuck to forest fruit and eventually died out.

Some even believe that the Gigantopithecus might have preferred bamboo in the same way as the giant panda, another animal species facing extinction due to loss of habitat and a picky diet.

What’s interesting about the extinction of the Gigantopithecus is that it’s a situation where a species died out for reasons completely unrelated to humanity. Thanks to modern climate change and deforestation, we are witnessing similar situations play out with animal species around the world.

Perhaps a closer look at the Gigantopithecus and its extinction can help people appreciate how little information about animal species could be made available after they’ve become extinct. It could hopefully inspire action towards preventing today’s endangered apes species from following in the tragic footsteps of their ancient primate ancestors.

In this case, referring to the Gigantopithecus as a real life “King Kong” seems rather fitting, considering the tragic end of the giant ape in the famous story.

[Photo courtesy of Scott Barbour/Getty Image; Tim Evanson via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY-SA 2.0]