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Did Cavities Kill Earth's Largest Ape?

The extinct 10-foot-tall, 1,200 pound ape, Gigantopithecus, may have died out after turning to fruit to replace dwindling bamboo. Continue reading →

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.

Photos: 10 Reasons Why Bigfoot's a Bust

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)

1. The Empty Fossil Record When two Georgia men declared they were storing the body of Bigfoot in a freezer -- and that they had its DNA -- more than a few skeptics cried foul. Is the legend of Bigfoot (a.k.a. Sasquatch) little more than a stubborn myth? For the dirt on the doubters, Discovery News contacted Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, who was more than happy to rattle off the top 10 reasons Bigfoot is bogus. First on his list: the fossil record. Why, he asked, would a legacy of large mammals reported to exist throughout North America (and beyond) simply disappear from the same soil that has preserved everything from the dinosaur bones pictured here, to woolly mammoths, to tiny marine crustaceans? "There's no fossil record of anything fitting the description" of Bigfoot, said Radford. "There's simply nothing there."

2. Forget Fossils, Where Are the Bodies? Putting aside paleontology, Radford points out that today, if Bigfoot exists, it must disappear when it dies. "There's no hard evidence in the form of bones. There are no hair samples, there are no live or dead specimens," he said. Bigfoot believers argue that the soil in areas where the creatures live -- such as the region surrounding Bellingham, Wash., seen here -- is acidic and quickly breaks down the bones. Nonsense, says Radford: "There's nothing to that, because Bigfoot has been reported in every state but Hawaii."

3. Where Do Bigfoot Babies Come From? Even for mammals that are relatively rare in global terms, such as the chimpanzee, it takes a decent population size to maintain a species. "If Bigfoot is a zoological reality," said Radford, "there has to be a breeding population." For that population to be big enough to account for even a fraction of the sightings, there would need to be tens of thousands of the creatures in North America alone. "Think about that for a second. Tens of thousands of Bigfoot, living, breathing, doing what they do. Where are they? Why don't they get hit by a car?" asked Bradford. "The numbers just simply don't add up."

4. Your Lying Eyes The majority of "evidence" for Bigfoot, says Radford, consists of eyewitness accounts. Yet as psychologists and schooled juries know, such accounts are famously inaccurate. What's more, says Radford, "the problem is, that's not evidence, it's an anecdote....It's interesting and you shouldn't dismiss it out of hand, but it's not evidence."

5. The Ever-Mysterious Blobsquatch This black-and-white image was taken in 1977 by a man named Frank White, near Bellingham, Wash. "I'd call it a North American ape," White told reporters at the time. "You can call it a Sasquatch or anything you like." Radford calls it a Blobsquatch. Aside from eyewitness reports, blurry images like this are what most Bigfoot believers rely on. But it's no proof, said Radford: "These photos show something that is probably alive, it's probably dark, it's not a cat, it's not a camel. It could be a Bigfoot, or it could be a deer or it could be a guy in a suit." "Ultimately," he concludes, "it's a two-dimensional image. It's pixels."

6. Doctor Who? For Radford and other skeptics, the only acceptable standard of proof is the scientific one. Why, when there are countless researchers probing the far corners of every continent, is there no rigorous, documented, peer-reviewed evidence for Bigfoot? Only one answer makes sense, says Radford: Bigfoot isn't real. Attendees of the Texas Bigfoot Conference, pictured here, might disagree. The annual event draws hundreds of people -- including Bigfoot enthusiasts, amateur researchers, historians, and tourists -- but few if any academic scientists.

7. The Case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Speaking of science, Bigfoot believers sometimes complain that funding for Sasquatch Studies is hard to find. But scientists are notoriously good note-takers, Radford points out, even about subjects they aren't directly studying. Consider this league of biologists scouting for the elusive ivory-billed woodbecker in Arkansas' White River National Wildlife Refuge, an area where Bigfoot sightings have been made. "There was a huge, hardcore investigation. They were well-equipped, well-funded and made a sustained search," noted Radford. "What I found interesting was, what didn't they find? They didn't find Bigfoot."

8. This Katydid Couldn't Hide Dozens of new species, previously unknown to science, are discovered each year. But for the most part, they are tiny: microorganisms and insects such as the newly discovered katydid pictured here. Could Bigfoot really hide in such a peopled world? "The last large animal to be found was probably the giant panda, and that was 100 years ago," said Radford. "There has not been a single new creature that doesn't fit the recognized taxonomy discovered in the last century, there just simply hasn't."

9. If It Walks Like a Hoax ... This ruddy strand, about 70 micrometers in diameter, could be taken as a hair. But it isn't -- it's a carpet fiber. A similar thread was once claimed to have fallen from Bigfoot's back. Later, it was shown to be synthetic Dynel fiber, said Radford. An alleged vial of Bigfoot blood once turned out to be transmission fluid, and many Bigfoot sightings, in the end, are admitted fakes. "There is no category of Bigfoot evidence that doesn't have a string of hoaxes attached to it," said Radford. "If you're studying a subject in which virtually all the evidence either comes down to being inconclusive or a hoax, something's wrong."

10. The Case of the Missing Footprint This picture shows Al Hodgson, a volunteer guide at California's Willow Creek-China Flat Musuem, holding up a plaster cast believed by some to be a Bigfoot imprint. Authentic or not, footprints and other physical artifacts are meaningless scientifically, says Radford, when there is no standard to measure them by. "Some of the footprints have three toes, some have four toes, and some of course have five," he noted. "Even if I'm certain a certain track wasn't made by anything else, how do I know it's Bigfoot? You can't." The same goes for DNA. Scientists make a positive identification by comparing an unknown sample to a known one. There is no such standard for Bigfoot, says Radford. Even an educated guess about the giant footprint pictured here or a Blobsquatch gone wild is, at best, a shot in the dark. Benjamin Radford is the co-author of "Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures."