Did Cavities Kill Earth's Largest Ape?

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Besides “anywhere he wants,” where does a 1,200-ape sit down for diner? The extinct 10-foot tall Gigantopithecus probably found a seat near the bamboo salad bars of Southeast Asia’s forests from approximately 9 million to 300,000 years ago.

However, that bamboo buffet may have disappeared as the Tibetan Plateau rose and ushered in a cooler climate. Without bamboo, the apes may have turned to sugary fruits that rotted their teeth, reported New Scientist.

Near the end of apes’ time on Earth, the animals’ now-fossilized teeth bore deep erosion and potential signs of decay. This may mean they ate increased amounts of acidic, sugary fruit as the bamboo dwindled, the lead author of recent study in Quaternary International, Yingqi Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told New Scientist.

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Zhang based his dental diagnosis of  Gigantopithecus’ demise on 17 teeth recently excavated from Hejiang Cave in China. The teeth were found along with fossils from rhinos, pandas, tapirs, hyenas, colobine monkeys, tigers and other animals.

The mixture of other animals suggests the giant ape may have lived in or near dense forests (monkeys and pandas) and mixed woodlands (rhinos and tapirs). The giant ape also co-existed with Homo erectus, an ancestor of humans, according to an earlier study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In its forested habitat, Gigantopithecus ate a mixture of tough, fibrous grasses, likely bamboo, and fruits and seeds from plants in the fig family. Russell Ciochon, biological anthropologist at the University of Iowa, discovered the extinct ape’s diet by examining residues left on fossilized teeth. These ancient left-overs, known as opal phytoliths, were microscopic silica structures that formed in the plants. Their distinctive shapes indicated which plants created the phytoliths. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published Ciochon’s results.

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Although scientists know what  Gigantopithecus ate, much of the rest of the animals’ lifestyle remains a mystery. Even the estimated massive size of the ape hasn’t been proven. No skeletal remains of the ape have been discovered besides numerous teeth and three jawbones.

If the ape was a scaled up version of its closest relative, the orangutan, it would have been up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall standing erect and weighed up to 540 kg (1,200 lb). However, the teeth may have been proportionately larger in Gigantopithecus than in orangutans, which would mean the extinct primate was actually smaller than the estimate.

Image Gigantopithecus blacki exhibit in the San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego, Calif. (Daderot, Wikimedia Commons)

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