Scientists discover a giant stork that ate hobbits
The 6-foot-tall fossil bird likely preyed on an extinct species of tiny human that once lived on the Indonesian island of Flores.
Wed, Dec 08, 2010 at 02:55 AM
Most people are familiar with the popular myth that newborn babies are delivered to expectant parents by storks, but scientists have recently discovered a species of giant meat-eating stork that would have been every new parents' worst nightmare, according to the BBC.
Paleontologists unearthed fossils of the mammoth bird while exploring ancient caves on the Indonesian island of Flores. Based on the length of the animal's leg bones, the extinct stork would have stood at least 6 feet tall and weighed 35 pounds — far larger than any storks alive today.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is that the stork would have lived between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, meaning it would have shared the island with the recently discovered Homo floresiensis, a tiny species of hominid closely related to modern humans. Because of the small frame of Homo floresiensis, scientists have nicknamed them "hobbits."
The fact that the two species shared an island begs the question: Did the giant meat-eating storks prey upon the half-sized humans? Researchers say they might have. At the very least, the storks were twice the height of adult hobbits and would have been more than capable of hunting and devouring juvenile hobbits.
It's a fascinating scenario to imagine. In fact, the island of Flores would have been home to one of the most bizarre ecosystems that ever existed around 50,000 years ago. Aside from hobbits and giant storks, the island was also home to dwarf elephants, lizards larger than komodo dragons, and even giant rats.
Scientists say the reason Flores has such a unique biological history is its long isolation.
"Flores has never been connected to mainland Asia and has always been isolated from surrounding islands. This isolation has played a key role in shaping the evolution of the Flores fauna," said Dr. Hanneke Meijer, one of the scientists who discovered the extinct stork.
Since the giant stork was so large, it would have spent little time flying, if it flew at all. But it likely evolved from flying storks that colonized the island at some point in the distant past. Its closest living relatives are storks of the Lepotoptilos genus, which includes Africa's marabou stork.
"Finding large birds of prey is common on islands, but I wasn't expecting to find a giant marabou stork," said Meijer.