The Gigantopithecus blacki, a distant relative of humans, was a giant primate that stood three meters tall and weighed around 250 kilograms. Despite its might, the species is shrouded in mystery due to the limited fossil record, consisting only of a few thousand teeth and four jawbones. Researchers have been investigating the disappearance of these giants and have made significant findings regarding their extinction.
A team of Chinese, Australian, and US scientists has been conducting extensive exploration and excavations in southern China since 2015. Their research focuses on two regions in Guangxi: Chongzuo and Bubing Basin. Out of the 22 caves studied, 11 contained evidence of G. blacki, while the other 11 did not.
To determine the timing of G. blacki’s extinction, the team used various dating techniques on sediments from the caves. They also analyzed environmental and behavioral evidence, including ancient pollen grains, animal bones, and sediment details. Additionally, they examined G. blacki teeth for isotopic signatures, trace elements, and wear patterns to gain insights into diet, migration patterns, habitat preferences, food diversity, and stress levels.
The research revealed that G. blacki went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago, more recently than previously believed. The species thrived in a diverse forest before environmental changes occurred between 600,000 and 300,000 years ago. The increased strength of seasons led to changes in forest plant communities, causing the forests to deteriorate by 200,000 years ago.
Unlike G. blacki, orangutans were able to adapt their size, behavior, and habitat preferences to survive these changes. They displayed a flexible diet with little stress during this period. G. blacki, on the other hand, relied on less nutritious food sources like twigs and bark when their preferred fruit-bearing plants were unavailable. This led to a decrease in food diversity and limited their geographic range for foraging due to their less mobile body size.
Moreover, G. blacki increased in body size over time, exacerbating food source problems and causing chronic stress. This stress is evident in the trace element mapping of their teeth, indicating a species on the brink of extinction. The combination of specific food and habitat preferences made G. blacki vulnerable to environmental changes, unlike more adaptable species like orangutans.
The story of G. blacki serves as a lesson in extinction and highlights the varying abilities of species to survive change. Understanding past extinctions can provide insights into primate resilience and shed light on the fate of other large animals in the past and future.