Carbon isotope reveals a solely C3 biomass diet for gigantopithecus in the early pleistocene of South China

Nov 10, 2011
Fig.1: The mandibles of Gigantopithecus blacki from Juyuandong Cave of Liucheng, Guangxi Province, China.

The extinct giant ape, Gigantopithecus blacki, is a species of large hominoids that dominated the Pleistocene of South China. Its massive mandible, large postcanine teeth and extremely thick enamel always spark people's curiosity about what a diet for this giant ape was. The precise diet and habitat of Gigantopithecus remains unknown so far.

Drs. ZHAO LingXia, ZHANG LiZhao and WU XinZhi, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and ZHANG FuSong from Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, analyze enamel stable carbon isotope values of G. blacki and the associated mammalian megafauna from two sites in South China, and find that this giant ape and other large mammals solely fed on C3 biomass, and lived in forest habitats, as reported in the journal of Chinese Science Bulletin, 2011(56), No.33:3590-3595.

Zhao and her collaborators prepared and analyzed a total of 32 tooth samples for their study. Four teeth of G. blacki and 24 teeth of associated large mammals were from Longgudong Cave, Jianshi, Hubei Province, and the other 4 teeth of G. blacki were taken from Juyuandong Cave of Liucheng, Guangxi Province. The most enriched δ13C value was -14.1‰, and the most depleted was -18.8‰. Concerning an enrichment of about 14‰ for δ13C between food and enamel, the δ13C values of food sources would be from -32.8‰ to -28.1‰, which is within the δ13C range of C3 biomass and far too negative for that of C4 biomass. It is clear that Gigantopithecus and the affiliated megafauna, such as browsers (Cervus sp. and Tapirus sinensis), grazers (Equus sp. and Leptobos sp.) and carnivores (Pachycrocuta licenti and Ursus sp.), all derived their carbon from solely C3 biomass sources. Zhao and her collaborators suggested that Gigantopithecus should live in closed forest habitat and not an open habitat, which is consistent with the associated faunal and floral analyses.

“Analysis of stable carbon isotopes is a powerful method for exploring the diet and habitat use of extinct herbivorous mammals, and it has been used in paleoanthropology in analysis on early hominins fossils. This method is based on the fact that the carbon isotope composition is significantly different between plants that use different photosynthetic pathways, such as C3 plants (δ13C from -22‰ to -35‰) and C4 plants (δ13C from -8‰ to -16‰), and the stable carbon isotope composition of enamel is dependent on the diet components throughout the food chain”, said Dr. ZHAO LingXia, the lead author and research designer, “The diet and habitat of Gigantopithecus blacki was significantly different from that of early hominins in Africa, such as Australopithecus and Paranthropus, which could consume both C3 and C4 resources and live in open habitats, although they all somehow show similar powerful mastication morphology . Dependence on forest habitat might be an important factor that made Gigantopithecus extinct when the climate and environment changed dramatically during the Pleistocene.”

Explore further: Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

6 million years of savanna

Aug 03, 2011

University of Utah scientists used chemical isotopes in ancient soil to measure prehistoric tree cover – in effect, shade – and found that grassy, tree-dotted savannas prevailed at most East African ...

New research changes understanding of C4 plant evolution

Nov 15, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new analysis of fossilized grass-pollen grains deposited on ancient European lake and sea bottoms 16-35 million years ago reveals that C4 grasses evolved earlier than previously thought. ...

Early hominid first walked on two legs in the woods

Oct 08, 2009

Among the many surprises associated with the discovery of the oldest known, nearly complete skeleton of a hominid is the finding that this species took its first steps toward bipedalism not on the open, grassy ...

Recommended for you

New search planned for grave of Spanish poet Lorca

21 hours ago

Archeologists will start inspecting land in southern Spain near where the acclaimed poet Federico Garcia Lorca is believed to have been executed and buried at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, officials said Friday.

Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

Oct 30, 2014

Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers from the University of Bonn and the University of Göttingen attempt ...

Mexico archaeologists explore Teotihuacan tunnel (Update)

Oct 29, 2014

A yearslong exploration of a tunnel sealed almost 2,000 years ago at the ancient city of Teotihuacan yielded thousands of relics and the discovery of three chambers that could hold more important finds, Mexican ...

Peruvian dig reveals sacrificial mystery

Oct 29, 2014

Tulane University physical anthropologist John Verano has spent summers in Peru for the last 30 years, digging for ancient bones and solving their secrets. But his most recent work focuses on a unique archeological ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.