Welcome back to Prehistoric Creature Feature! We are four lessons into the course, and already we have learned about so many fascinating ancient creatures. Some extinct, some supposedly extinct, and some only extinct to the unsuspecting Muggles. I have not seen you since Lesson One, but I do hope you have enjoyed every lecture the professors involved with this week have presented to you. As per the provided syllabus, today we will be discussing Gigantopithecus. If you have ever participated in Cryptozoology Creature Feature, you may remember reading about Gigantopithecus in the lesson on bigfoot. Today we will go much more in depth on this extinct genus of ape.
What Am I Looking For?
Now, did you catch that? I said genus, not species. There were three different species of Gigantopithecus, which lived anywhere from nine million to 100 thousand years ago. An exact and more definite period of time has yet to be established, but as more fossils are found, a timeline can be established with carbon dating. Fossils have been found in Vietnam, China, and India.
The creatures stood about ten feet, at the tallest, and weighed over 1,000 pounds. Tropical forests appeared to be their home of choice, however, much is still unknown because of the gaps in the fossil record. They are thought to look similar to modern day chimpanzees or orangutans, but there is also a theory that they had an appearance similar to pandas, simply because their fossils were found with those of extinct species of pandas.
Little is known about Gigantopithecus reproduction, but if we consider what they are related to, we can use our investigative skills. Orangutans have one baby every six to seven years. With a gestation period similar to humans, about nine months, that is not a lot of offspring being born. Scientists feel that orangutans wait so long in between offspring because it is difficult enough to feed themselves in their environments, let alone to feed an infant as well. This kind of logic can be translated to Gigantopithecus, especially during its believed extinction event.
The following video provides a great, quick overview of Gigantopithecus, if you would like to take a look. It is under three minutes long!
The Tall Tale of Gigantopithecus
Very few fossils have ever been found of Gigantopithecus. The first fossils were found in 1935 when anthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald found fossilized teeth in an apothecary shop. Fossilized teeth and bones were often ground into powders and used in Chinese medicine. The next time fossils were found was 1955, when 47 teeth were discovered in a shipment of oracle bones or dragon bones in China. Through tracing the package, a mandible was also found. Extensive digging at the site lead to the recovery of three more mandibles and over 1,300 teeth over a period of three years. The issue with the fossil record, and why we do not know much about Gigantopithecus, is the inconsistency of the fossils. Everything found dates to a different time period, giving us no exact timeframe for the existence for this creature.
From the teeth found, we can determine quite a bit about their diet. They have very deep, thick jaws, fit for a creature of its size. Their flat molars show they were used for grinding, whereas their incisors are peg-like. With these features, Gigantopithecus probably ate fibrous foods that required grinding, crushing, and cutting. It was found that their teeth had quite a few cavities as well. What other Asian mammals have this same trait? Pandas! With this information, scientists feel confident in saying Gigantopithecus mostly ate bamboo and other vegetation.
Now, Gigantopithecus is considered one of the largest apes to have ever roamed this planet. Apes are either bipedal or move on all fours. Because no pelvic or leg bones have been recovered, it is uncertain what kind of locomotion this species of ape had. Scientists have considered them to be bipedal, due to the jaw bones found. Bipedal movement would allow for the ‘U’ shape seen in the uncovered mandibles and also for their windpipe to be close to the jaw, which means the skull would sit like a human’s does.
The Three Species of Gigantopithecus
Though so few fossil remains have been discovered, enough variation has been seen to classify them into three different species. The species we know most about is Gigantopithecus blacki. The teeth found that were originally thought to be dragon bones were classified as such. Through dating the teeth, scientists believe that this species existed for at least one million years. It was thought to be related to the early human Australopithecus, but it was later determined the two emerged through convergent evolution, when similar features develop simultaneously through separate evolutionary lines.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the second species, Gigantopithecus bilaspurensis. Fossils of this species have been found in India, where it is believed to have lived about six to nine million years ago.
The final species is Gigantopithecus giganteus. Despite its name, it was half the size of Gigantopithecus blacki, which is the largest species and how the average height of Gigantopithecus is calculated. This species has the fewest fossil records, all of which have been found in India and China.
Why Don’t We See Them Today?
There is one commonly accepted theory as to why Gigantopithecus went extinct. 100,000 years ago, when the fossil record for the apes stops, there is also indication that a climate change occurred. As we previously discussed, Gigantopithecus is believed to have been an herbivore. With the climate change, the forestlands that it once used for food and shelter became deserts, leaving it with no food or home. Sure, vegetation was still available, but a 1,000 pound beast needs quite a bit of vegetation to sustain itself. With the herbivorous food supply dwindling, and other herbivores also competing with them, Gigantopithecus was no match for evolution. Its size was its downfall!
Those of you that took Cryptozoology Creature Feature might remember that I discussed Gigantopithecus as a relative of the infamous bigfoot. If we take a moment to consider what we have learned thus far, we can apply it to this. Remembering how the woolly mammoth evolved, we saw smaller species evolving from larger species. If we consider the Gigantopithecus to be the largest ape species of all, which is what is presently accepted, it could make sense that a smaller, similar species of ape, like bigfoot, evolved at some point on the evolutionary tree.
Comparison To Orangutans and Chimpanzees
Scientists believe that based on the fossils found, Gigantopithecus had an appearance similar to orangutans or chimpanzees. Let’s take a look at the two, and you can be the judge!
Orangutans, consisting of three species, are native to Indonesia and Malaysia. They are currently only found in the rainforests in Sumatra and Borneo. Each forest has their own species, and the Bornean species has three subspecies. A third species was officially declared in late 2017, living in South Tapanuli, a part of Sumatra. They are the only living species of the subfamily Ponginae, which also happens to be the subfamily of Gigantopithecus. They are felt to be the most arboreal of the living apes, meaning they spend the majority of their time in trees. They are also considered one of the most intelligent, creating sophisticated sleeping nests every night in the branches. They are known for their iconic red-orange hair, which makes them stand out from other apes.
Chimpanzees are one of two African apes, the second being the bonobo, which is a smaller species of chimpanzee given a different name. The two were thought to be the same species until the classification was changed in 1928. The chimpanzee, also called the common chimpanzee, has four different subspecies, and the bonobo has none. All of these are native to the Congo jungle. They are considered the most social of the apes, creating strong social bonds with their peers. Both the chimpanzee and the bonobo are considered to be the closest living relatives to humankind and have dark brown to black hair.
Now that we have discussed both, what do you think? In depictions of Gigantopithecus, it has the red-orange hair like that of an orangutan, but the pronounced brow ridge of a chimpanzee. Could the different species have bred at some point in history? Or could the hair color or brow ridge have developed independently?
I hope you enjoyed the lesson today! Not only did we cover Gigantopithecus, we also discussed two different kinds of apes, and connected this lesson with a lesson from Cryptozoology Creature Feature. There is a mandatory quiz today as well as an extra credit assignment for you. Next time, Professor Fairclough will teach you all about megalodons! Enjoy the rest of the week, and until next time!
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