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It Was Climate, Not Beauty, That Killed the Beast

Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

It’s one of the most famous closing lines of a movie, but is it true? Airplanes definitely contributed to the demise of King Kong and his love for Ann Darrow put him in that fatal predicament, but new evidence shows that the real life version of King Kong met extinction when it could not adapt to changes in climate.

Size comparison of Gigantopithecus, normal man, basketball player Yao Ming and an ornagutan

Size comparison of Gigantopithecus, normal man, basketball player Yao Ming and an orangutan

Gigantopithecus (Greek for “giant ape”) is believed to have roamed the semi-tropical forests of China, India, and Vietnam from nine million to 100,000 years ago. From the few fossil relics found, it’s estimated that the species Gigantopithecus blacki stood three meters (9,8 feet) tall and weighed as much as 540 kg (1190 pounds). Those fossils – about a thousand teeth and four partial lower jaws – were analyzed recently to determine what killed off the huge apes. An interesting side note: some of the teeth and bones were discovered in 1935 at a Chinese pharmacy.

A tooth from a Gigantopithecus

A tooth from a Gigantopithecus

According to a new report in the journal Quaternary International, researchers from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment recently analyzed the enamel on some of the teeth and determined that Gigantopithecus got to be a giant ape by eating massive amounts of forest fruits and vegetation – that’s right, the big fellow was a strict vegetarian. This wasn’t a problem until the ice age of the Pleistocene Epoch which began about 2.6 million years ago.

The ice age slowly killed the semi-tropical forests, which were replaced by savannas filled with grasses and bamboo. The scientists say the slight variations in carbon isotopes found in tooth enamel confirmed what had been suspected – that Gigantopithecus, unlike its smaller relative the orangutan, either refused to try anything new or simply couldn’t maintain its massive food needs with grasses, roots and bamboo and eventually died off.

Wear on the teeth indicates Gigantopithecus was finicky about  its diet

Wear on the teeth indicates Gigantopithecus was finicky about its diet

While not as dramatic as a battle with airplanes while guarding a loved one, the end of the Gigantopithecus is just as sad as the end of King Kong. And, like Kong’s story, it contains a warning … in this case that climate change will eventually force many species to adapt or die off.

Is it too late for another movie?

Climate or climb it?

You say I should try the Paleo diet?