Nine million years ago, King Kong (scientific name: Gigantopithecus) stomped through the jungles of South East Asia and Southern China. But 100,000 years ago, its sudden extinction created a lasting mystery that scientists have just solved.
Gigantopithecus’ extinction was caused by a combination of the animal’s enormous size and climate change, National Geographic reported.
The ancient, massive creature stood nearly 10 feet high and weighed 1,100 pounds, leading many to compare Gigantopithecus to King Kong — that famous cinematic monster with a heart of gold. But scientists know very little about the huge animal since so few of its fossils have ever been found.
The first teeth from a Gigantopithecus were found by a paleoanthropologist named Gustav Heinrich Ralph Von Koenigswald in 1935 in a Chinese pharmacy, USA Today reported. Some were being sold as “dragon’s teeth” in Hong Kong, the Telegraph added. Scientists uncovered about 1,000 teeth and four partial lower jaws.
Although the fossil record was scant, these teeth were enough to solve the mystery of the creature’s extinction.
Researchers analyzed the enamel on these fossilized teeth to uncover clues about the Gigantopithecus’ diet. Teeth found in China and Thailand were studied and their enamel proved that King Kong really was a gentle soul — he snacked solely on grass, roots, and leaves.
King Kong was a vegetarian, and that’s what led to his eventual extinction 100,000 years ago.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, which occurred between 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago, the Earth was frozen by a massive ice age. Gigantopithecus’ extinction came at the beginning of this ice age. It simply didn’t have enough to eat and didn’t adapt quickly enough to this new environment.
“Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food,” explained Herve Bocherens, a researcher at Tübingen University in Germany. “When, during the Pleistocene, more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape.”
One would think that being 10 feet tall and weighing 1,100 pounds would give an animal a distinct advantage. And it does, to a point. A huge body requires more food and larger animals tend to have less offspring. This creates a smaller population that is more vulnerable to fluctuations, explained scientist Aaron Clauset.
Changes in weather or climate, which threaten a food source, can lead the population of a large species like the Gigantopithecus to eventual extinction or “demographic death.”
And rates of extinction actually go up as a species gets bigger. That’s why the Earth is no longer home to Gigantopithecus and the giant sloth. Animals have an upper limit to their size, and once they reach that size, they simply disappear into oblivion.
If Gigantopithecus hadn’t been, well, so Giganto, it may have avoided extinction altogether. Its cousin the orangutan survived because it has a slow metabolism and doesn’t need as much food, even though the ape, like King Kong, had a specialized diet. It was simply better able to adapt.
Dinosaurs would appear to be the exception to this extinction rule. It took an asteroid to finally wipe the massive creatures from the Earth after tens of millions of years of success. Unlike dinosaurs, Gigantopithecus had higher metabolic needs because it was warm-blooded, making it more vulnerable, Clauset said.
Not everyone is convinced King Kong no longer exists. U.S. professor and Bigfoot enthusiast Grover Krantz thinks 2,000 members of the fabled species are Gigantopithecus survivors, who skirted extinction and migrated over the Bering strait.
[Image via modera761101/Shutterstock]