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Giant Storks on Hobbit Island

In Alien From Earth, which premiered back in 2008, NOVA took viewers to the Indonesian island of Flores to meet the "hobbits"--or rather, the 18,000-year-old bones of the creatures formally designated Homo floresiensis. These diminutive hominids, which might or might not represent a lost human species, were not the only exotic fauna on ancient Flores. They shared the island with Komodo dragons, dwarf elephants called pygmy Stegodon, and, scientists announced earlier this week, giant, carnivorous storks.

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Care for a bite of hobbit? A contemporary Marabou stork. By Ltshears (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

To anyone who associates storks with the delivery of sweetly-bundled little babies, the whole carnivorous thing may come as a surprise. Yes, the 19 known species of stork eat worms and bugs, but many also dine on small mammals and other birds, and the Marabou stork, to which the new Flores behemoth is most closely related, has a particular taste for carrion. As the writers at the National Zoo point out, though, it's not picky: "Marabou Storks will eat just about any kind of animal, dead or alive."

Modern Marabous are nearly five feet tall, and their Flores cousins stood even taller: At six feet, they would have towered over the three-foot hobbits. Based on the heft of the bones, which were discovered in the same cave which held the hobbit remains, the birds probably weighed about 35 pounds and didn't do much flying.

Take vulnerable hobbits, throw in some giant meat-eating storks, give it all a good shake in the science-headline-machine, and what do you get? Frodo Eaten Alive By Storks! and Some Storks Deliver Babies, These Storks Eat Them! I'm exaggerating, but only a little. Since there is no evidence that these giant storks fed on the hobbits of Flores, the fact that almost every headline on the story screamed Hobbit-Eating Storks! seemed a little sensational.

I emailed Mike Morwood, the Australian archaeologist who headed up the team that discovered the hobbit bones, to get his take. To my surprise, Morwood sided with the hobbit-eaters: "Undoubtedly, Komodo dragons and possibly giant storks occasionally killed and consumed Hobbits. In fact, Komodo dragons still occasionally kill people."

But, says Morwood, the storks were probably more afraid of hobbits than the hobbits were of them: "There is clear evidence that Homo floresiensis was butchering and eating this stork--bones have cut marks on them and one skull had been smashed. This should not be surprising however, because other items of Hobbit diet included Komodo dragon, another formidable predator, and lots of pygmy Stegodon. All great accomplishments for a hominin just one meter tall. Despite her small brain, Hobbit was smarter than Big Bird."

As for the suggestion that the storks nibbled the hobbits to extinction, says Morwood, "We now have evidence that hominins, presumably of the lineage that culminated in H. floresiensis, were on Flores for at least a million years, so it is very unlikely that storks (or Komodo dragons) were responsible for their extinction."

Why are the creatures of Flores so weird? Animals on remote islands often grow or shrink over many generations, isolation being evolution's answer to Alice in Wonderland's magical cakes and mushrooms. Naturally big fellows like hippos and elephants are most likely to shrink down to pygmy proportions, perhaps so that they can survive on limited resources. Small fries, like rodents, swell up like hairy Hulks, perhaps to better defend their territory and devour larger prey. Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA Online, examined on the history of this "island rule"--and its many exceptions--in Gigantism & Dwarfism on Islands.

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