Homo floresiensis vs Leptoptilos robustus (© Hodari Nundu/deviantart)
I am extremely fortunate to count among my friends and colleagues a number of extremely talented artists, and the pseudonymous 'Hodari Nundu' (aka 'Justin Case') is one of these very gifted persons, as immediately demonstrated by the particularly vibrant example of his artwork presented above (click it to enlarge it), which showcases two most remarkable island-confined species.
Where on Earth would you find all within the very selfsame location a unique, Alice-in-Wonderland-reminiscent assemblage of mega-rats and mini-humans, gargantuan lizards, dwarf elephants, and gigantic storks? Only on Flores – a small island in Indonesia's Lesser Sundas group that provides some classic examples of both island gigantism and insular dwarfism.
Between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, it was home to: two extra-large species of giant rat, Papagomys armandvillei and P. theodorverhoeveni, the former of which still survives today (and indeed, according to some researchers the latter may do too); a dwarf subspecies of elephant-related stegodont proboscidean Stegodon florensis insularis, which died out around 12,000 years ago and is the youngest stegodont form on record from southeast Asia; the Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis, the world's largest living species of lizard, which still survives on Flores today (as well as on the neighbouring islands of Komodo, Rintja, and Padar) and undoubtedly preyed upon Flores's dwarf stegodonts; plus the two highly significant species featured in this ShukerNature article's opening illustration.
If it can't see me, it can't eat me, right? Wrong! Never under-estimate its very highly-developed sense of smell! Posing with a life-sized Komodo dragon model at Chester Zoo, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)
One of these is the now world-famous 'hobbit' – the informal nickname given to Flores Man Homo floresiensis. With its most complete recorded specimen estimated at approximately 18,000 years old, this controversial, diminutive species of hominid apparently stood little more than 3 ft tall, may be descended from Homo erectus, and is believed to represent another case of insular dwarfism. Its first scientifically-documented remains were discovered in September 2004 at Liang Bua Cave in western Flores.
Life-size replicas of Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis skulls for comparison purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker)
And the other species, whose remains were also uncovered in that very same cave, may have been one of the Flores hobbits' deadliest antagonists. It is a marabou stork, but far bigger than any of today's trio of marabou species. Yet it remained undescribed by science until as recently as 2010. Formally dubbed Leptoptilos robustus, the giant stork of Flores stood approximately 6 ft tall and weighed up to 35 lb, due to its extremely heavy leg bones – on account of which it is likely to have been predominantly if not exclusively flightless.
Even so, Smithsonian Institution palaeontologist Dr Hanneke J.M. Meijer and Dr Rokus A. Due from Jakarta's National Center for Archaeology, who jointly described its fossilised remains (dated at between 20,000 and 50,000 years old) in a Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society paper, believe that it was still theoretically capable of hunting and devouring juvenile hobbits. Having said that, there is presently no direct evidence confirming such activity; in the words of Dr Meijer as spoken during a 2010 interview with the UK's BBC television news service: "Whether or not this animal may have eaten hobbits is speculative: there is no evidence for that." Then again, as Dr Meijer also conceded in that same interview: "But can not be excluded either."
In European tradition, the stork brings newborn human babies to their parents - but in a major reversal of that benevolent role, Indonesia's giant stork of doom may conceivably have hunted down such babies (possibly even older infants too) and devoured them. Only on the topsy-turvy island of Flores!
Were the hobbits of Flores stalked by a stork? (© Inge van Noortwijk)
What a world it was in which our diminutive cousins lived! Reminiscent of the myth of the war between cranes and pygmies. I hadn't previously known of this Flores marabou stork, but those at my local zoo look pretty formidable. If they were nearly twice my height, I'd be a wary little hobbit!ReplyDelete
Dear Dr. Shuker, As the author of the above-mentioned paper, I am pleased to see that my work on the extinct giant storks from Flores still garners attention. However, as scientists, we are careful to stick to the facts, and only the facts. The presence of extinct giant "storks of doom" that hunted after hobbits is not a fact. Although you are careful to state that there is no evidence whatsoever for such activities, you seem to favour an overly dramatic interpretation over the dry facts. I understand, it is easy to get carried away into a world of fantasy when being confronted with examples of insular evolution, but I would suggest you stick to the evidence in your future writing about this topic.ReplyDelete
Dear Dr Meijer, Thanks for your message, but I have indeed stuck to the evidence regarding the giant stork of Flores - as you yourself have noted in your message concerning what I have written here: "You are careful to state that there is no evidence whatsoever for such activities [i.e. hunting hobbits]". I am indeed careful to state that. Equally, however, in your newspaper interview, you were quoted as adding: "But can not be excluded either [i.e. storks hunting hobbits cannot be excluded either]". So I have merely looked at both possibilities here, just like you did, but without favouring either of them. Best wishes, Dr Karl ShukerReplyDelete
Dr. Meijer, I would like to take small issue with something you wrote above:ReplyDelete
"The presence of extinct giant "storks of doom" that hunted after hobbits is not a fact."
I certainly understand your point that we have no evidence that these giant storks hunted "hobbits," However it is not necessarily true to say that it is "not a fact." We simply do not know whether it is a fact or not. It may indeed be a fact. Whether something is a fact is not contingent upon our knowing it to be a fact. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
In the spirit of having fun, we sometimes make conjectural leaps that are not supported by current evidence. In the spirit of attempting to prove one's superiority or greater fidelity to the scientific method, some people state certain things to be "not a fact," which itself is engaging in conjecture of another form.
"Fact", "not a fact"; perhaps it's good the page text doesn't mention a legend of Flores which fascinates me. Flores natives say little people also inhabited the island until, around 300 years ago, they stole a baby from the big people. The big people attacked, driving them into the very caves where the Homo floriensis skull was discovered. Could Homo floriensis have survived until so recent a time? (It's around the time white people discovered the island.) I don't think it terribly unlikely, although I don't want to be too certain. Could some still survive? Less likely, I think, but again, I don't want to be too certain.ReplyDelete