Ancient Pandas Competed With Giant Apes for Bamboo

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing
for National Geographic News
December 28, 2007

New fossils suggest ancient pandas competed with the largest known apes for habitat and food nearly half a million years ago on the tropical coast of southern China, scientists say.

The 400,000-year-old fossils of a giant panda were uncovered alongside the remains of a titan-sized, ancient ape called Gigantopithecus blacki, said Huang Wanbo, a paleontologist at Beijing's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

Excavated from a limestone cave on the island province of Hainan, the fossils suggest that both the giant pandas and the Giganto apes survived on a mostly bamboo diet, said Huang.

Hainan island was a bamboo-covered, hilly peninsula 400,000 years ago, Huang said. Today it is an island separated from the Chinese mainland by a 15-mile-wide (25-kilometer-wide) strait. (See map.)

Three-Way Competition

Russell Ciochon, a professor at the University of Iowa who has joined several fossil digs in China but was not involved in the Hainan excavation, said the findings expand the known geographic range of nine- to ten-foot (three-meter) Giganto, which he called "the largest ape that ever existed."

The Giganto ape became extinct about 300,000 years ago, after about a half-million years of overlap with early humans, according to Ciochon.

Huang said he believes the ape lost out in a three-way struggle with giant pandas and early humans over food and habitat.

Ancient panda fossils have been found before near Giganto ape remnants, and early human fossils in China have been found in the vicinity of ancient pandas.

If early humans—armed with primitive weapons like stone axes and fire—migrated like the panda through what is now southern China, they likely had contact with the giant apes, Huang said.

(Related story: "Giant Asian Ape and Humans Coexisted, Might Have Interacted" [December 8, 2005])

Fossils of this early human species—a hunter-gatherer known as Peking Man or Homo erectus—have been uncovered around Beijing in northern China, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) north of Hainan.

Continued on Next Page >>


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