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Gigantopithecus blacki is thought to be the largest ape that ever lived. This giant hominid existed in southern China in the first half of the Pleistocene. With so little evidence to reveal anything about the animal, anthropologists and paleontologists struggled to discern the underlying traits of this large and fascinating ape.
description and dimensions
Gigantopithecus blacki has been described and reconstructed as a great ape similar to a gorilla. While the "huge gorilla" description fits well with popularity, the animal is closer in appearance and pedigree to orangutans.
In fact, great apes do not belong to the subfamily Hominids (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees), but exist in the subfamily Ponginae, a sister family of Hominids . The only extant species in this family is the orangutan, which is divided into three subspecies ( Bornean , Sumatran and Dabanuri ).
However, it is estimated that great apes were around 25 percent larger than modern gorillas. Paleoanthropologists believe the animal weighed around 600-660 pounds and stood as tall as 9 feet.
While it's exciting to hear reports of great apes, it's important to note that researchers aren't fixing on this size estimate. There are very few fossil remains available for examination, so we won't know the exact proportions of the average man until more fossils are available to study.
It is also hypothesized that great apes exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. This occurs when male and female individuals of a species display markedly different sizes and attributes. Females were likely to be much smaller than males, making it difficult to accurately estimate size from the fossil record.
- closer to an orangutan than a gorilla
- 25% bigger than modern gorillas
- Weighs approximately 600-660 lbs
- strong sexual dimorphism
Most of the information we have about great apes comes from tooth and jaw remains.
1,000 teeth and numerous mandibles (mandibles) have been attributed to Gigantopithecus . Unfortunately, and hilariously, the researchers think that porcupines and their relatives likely ate most of this great ape's fossils! Porcupines are abundant along with great apes, and their clade has been known to feed on bones when the environment calls for it.
From the teeth identified by the archaeologists, they knew that Gigantopithecus had a tooth formula of 188.8.131.52. This means they have two incisors, one canine and three sets of molars. The large molars of Gigantopithecus suggest that the incisors were generally smaller, and some wear on the incisors found may indicate a pronounced underbite in these apes.
The average size of its molars is about 17mm x 21mm. No other great ape had molars of this size, an important detail in estimating the size of great apes. Additionally, these teeth had more enamel than any other ape known to man, meaning it was able to chew the thick, fibrous substance without wearing down the teeth.
- Most of the remains found were teeth
- Most of the great ape fossils likely were eaten by porcupines
- Average molar size is 17 mm x 21 mm
- Teeth that indicate thick or fibrous substances in the diet
So, what will this gorilla look like? Guessing the phenotype of an extinct animal is always difficult, but experts can make some general assertions about appearance based on fossil evidence.
Due to its close relationship to the orangutan, it is possible that the great ape grew orange hair. Unlike gorilla hair, this hair grows several inches, or possibly a few feet as some orangutans do. In addition, males may have cheek flanges and well-developed throat pouches to attract females and aid in courtship, respectively.
Gigantopithecus is unlikely to have unique physical properties to attract partners. This is true of almost all animals. Still, this gorilla's relationship with orangutans (and humans) suggests that breeding occurs every 5-10 years, with females raising their young for many years before going their separate ways.
The rarity of mating puts more pressure on males to display themselves and stand out, which may inspire more refined, beautiful features.
Diet – What do great apes eat?
What do great apes eat? All signs point to this animal being a herbivore.
Carbon-13 analysis is a test to determine how and where energy flows in the food chain. Carbon-13 tests of the great ape showed that it ate mainly fruit and plants. Another sign is the size of the teeth, the amount of enamel covering them, and the width of the jaw.
Large teeth with excess enamel are perfect for strenuous, fibrous chewing. Extra enamel keeps teeth from wearing down during rough, difficult chewing. Unlike orangutans, the teeth of great apes do not show many signs of so-called "pitting".
Pitting signs occur when an animal regularly eats very hard and small objects. Especially fruit pits, hard nuts, seeds etc. The ability to eat these things is often a specialized trait that develops over time, suggesting that the food in question is integral to the animal's life and habitat.
As the evolutionary process continued, animals became associated with a specific set of foods and developed a "specialty diet." This reduces the food sources and environments in which animals may survive.
So, because Gigantopithecus showed no signs of pitting, the researchers thought it likely had a generalist diet and could have lived in a variety of environments. This generalist diet will likely include things like bamboo shoots, roots, and stems. The elasticity of the teeth, as well as isotope analysis, showed that these people ate low-lying roots and stems covered in dirt.
- Carbon Analysis Shows Diets of Fruit and Plants
- They may eat bamboo shoots, stems, roots, and other soil-laden plants
- enjoy a generalist diet
Habitat – when and where it lives
Most of the great ape remains were found in southern China. Specifically, many of the teeth and jaws were found in what used to be evergreen forests dominated by broadleaf trees in the subtropics.
With the exception of teeth found in Hainan, the southernmost part of the Chinese territory, all fossils from southern China fall into this category. Hainan Island is located in a tropical rainforest, so the climate is slightly different from that to which most great ape individuals are accustomed.
According to the fossil record, these people lived there for most of the period from the Early Pleistocene to the Middle Pleistocene. That means they existed between about 2 million and 300,000 years ago.
If Gigantopithecus was like its orangutan cousin, individuals would have been largely reclusive, living among trees and foraging in dense forests. Most male orangutans do not interact much with other individuals, choosing only to communicate with females during mating season.
Females will spend a lot of time raising their young, but it is uncertain whether males will be involved in the parenting process around the family. So while it's hard to say whether these animals lived in groups, we can be fairly certain that they spent most of their time in trees or on the ground in dense evergreen forests.
- Southern China environment
- Occupied dense subtropical forest
- Existed between 2 million and 300,000 years ago
threats and predators
The uncertainty surrounding Gigantopithecus has made it difficult for researchers to identify its predators. Remember, the only things we know about this animal come from its teeth and jaws.
In other words, the large size undoubtedly gave great apes an advantage. There wouldn't be many predators that could use this animal as a viable prey source. Gigantopithecus would have expertly navigated the dense, crowded forests it inhabited, making it difficult to catch.
If we were to compare orangutans to orangutans, there would be no carnivores regularly hunting down individual adult great apes. Orangutans deal with rare big cats or snakes, but they spend most of their time in the trees so they are very safe.
In addition, great apes lived from 2 million years ago to 300,000 years ago, so there are different kinds of carnivores on the earth. There's a lot of speculation and uncertainty about what these predators looked like and how they behaved.
If there was a significant threat to Gigantopithecus, it was likely a big cat, similar to a saber-toothed cat. Eurasian cave lions came much later than great apes, although they lived in the same environment and likely arose from similar big cats that rivaled the great apes.
As we'll find out in another installment, the great ape's greatest threat is its changing environment.
- It is not yet known what the natural enemies of the great apes are
- May interact with large mammals and spar with big cats
Discovery and Fossils – Where to Find It
Fossil finds of Gigantopithecus are limited to fewer than 20 sites, and only include teeth and mandibles.
Most of the identified teeth come from the Liucheng area of China. Another discovery of 92 teeth from the Guangxi region of southern China constitutes the second largest collection of great ape teeth in a single region.
An anthropologist discovered this species in 1935 through dental observations in a Chinese pharmacy. Ralph von Koenigswald was perusing teeth sold in the market as relics or souvenirs when he noticed one was large.
An experienced paleoanthropologist, especially in the field of hominids, von Koenigswald identified these as the molars of great apes. No great ape with such large molars had ever been classified, so a new classification was made.
Unfortunately, we'll all have to wait until more Gigantopithecus skeletons are discovered to learn more about this ancient ape.
Extinct – When did it become extinct?
There is evidence that great apes became extinct during the Middle Pleistocene, or "Chibani" era, about 300,000 years ago. During this period, dense forests retreat southwards in the face of strengthening monsoons and a general cooling of the region. Areas that Gigantopithecus probably occupied became savannahs, paving the way for many large ungulates of the Late Pleistocene.
Therefore, the natural diet and environment in which the great apes lived can no longer be maintained. Many individuals may have migrated south with the forest, but the change in habitat may not provide what is necessary for survival.
The Chibanian and Late Pleistocene eras were also marked by migrations of ancient human species. Primitive as they were, these early humans were skilled hunters, disrupting ecosystems and causing the collapse and extinction of many species. In many cases, climate change and human hunting were responsible for the extinction of ancient animals.
Considering that Homo erectus migrated into southeastern Eurasia about 800,000 years ago, this may have been the case for the great apes. H. erectus lived mostly in savannas, while Gigantopithecus would have stayed in forests, but it is certainly possible that they interacted.
animals similar to great apes
Animals similar to great apes include:
- Orangutan – The orangutan is the closest living relative of the great ape. They belong to the same subfamily and are a distinct branch of Hominidae. Orangutans are the only great apes in this subfamily, meaning that the great apes have more in common with orangutans than either humans or gorillas.
- Gorillas – Gorillas are similar to great apes only in that they are the largest surviving members of the Hominidae family. Great apes were probably 25 to 30 percent larger than modern gorillas, but they likely shared some similarities, as did large primates that occupy the same positions in different ecosystems.
- Yeti or Bigfoot – Some cryptozoologists (people who study legendary or mythical animals) believe that the great ape died in the subtropical forests of Kibania's time. Instead, they migrated much later, moving to secluded mountain areas, where they evolved into what we now know as Bigfoot or Yeti. Aside from the fact that these animals looked relatively close to what we think of as "Bigfoot," there's no evidence of this.
Want to learn more about animals like the great apes?
- silverback gorilla
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Great apes lived sometime during the Early Pleistocene (about 2 million years ago) to the Middle Pleistocene (about 300,000 years ago).
Gigantopithecus was much larger than any ape known to man. It weighs about 660 pounds and stands about 9 feet tall.