Aug 09, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Giant Storks Lived With Mysterious Hobbit Humans

There is perhaps no more mysterious ancient human species than Homo floresiensis – the diminutive “hobbits” who lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia during a time period that overlapped the appearance of modern humans on the island. Reaching just 3 feet, 7 inches in height, the Flores men and women had to adapt to larger species of humans (whose arrival may have triggered or at least hastened their extinction) and of animals – the tiny humans competed for food and space with dwarf elephant ancestors (Stegodon florensis insularis), Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis), and vultures (Trigonoceps sp.). Now, new evidence shows Homo floresiensis also had to fend off giant flying storks that were previously thought to be flightless. Did their folklore contain tales of giant storks bringing babies … or carrying away adult hobbits?

“The giant storks were reliant upon them for a large part of their diet.”

Before you go taking pity on the Homo floresiensis, University of Bergen paleontologist Hanneke Meijer, the lead author of a new study on giant storks published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, was referring to the Stegodon and how bones of the four-foot-high dwarf elephants were found mixed with the bones of Leptoptilos robustus — the aforementioned extinct species of large-bodied stork that towered over the Stegadons, H. floresiensis and other inhabitants of Flores at 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) in height. The bones were first found in the limestone cave of Liang Bua in 2010 and initially identified as a member of the Leptoptilos species -- a family of very large tropical storks with ten extinct and three still delivering babies. The marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) is a modern member of the family sometimes called the "undertaker bird" due to its cloak-like shape when viewed from behind.

Imagine them almost 6 feet tall

Based on the size and thickness of the bones, paleontolosigts put the estimated weight of the Flores species of marabou stork at around 16 kg (35 pounds) and figured it was a flightless heavyweight like its extinct cousin Leptoptilos falconeri., making it formidable enough to corner dwarf elephants in caves for dinner. Those meals also included Komodo dragons, which the giant storks shared with vultures and H. floresiensis. In fact, Meijer says the various large residents of Flores got along fairly well … for a while.

“In some instances, these giant carnivorous birds have been found in association with proboscideans, vultures, and even hominins, suggesting a possible symbiotic relationship existed among these species.”

The giant storks, like the dwarf elephants, Komodo dragons and short humans, thrived on the island of Flores when it was a large wooded safe haven for the creatures. Their cohabitation on the island was mutually beneficial, as the giant storks and vultures were both predators and scavengers. While the different giant marabou stork species were widespread, Leptoptilos robustus was the only one found on Flores, which has never been connected to either the Asian or Australian continental land masses. Meijer and her study team managed to find and examine 21 additional skeletal elements of Leptoptilos robustus from Liang Bua Cave, even though evidence of the giant bird had not been found elsewhere on Flores. Meijer speculated on the reason:

“With its shady overhang and recurring water pools (due to frequent flooding from the nearby river, the Wae Racang), Liang Bua likely was a comfortable shelter from the heat for local wildlife.”

Unfortunately, that changed as the climate changed, with drought causing the forests to decrease and grasslands to take their place. Meijer tells Sci News that the bones of the Leptoptilos robustus stork were well-developed, indicating these giant storks could definitely fly. It appears their biggest enemy on Flores were the vultures. Meijer points out that the bones were in fragments and scattered in a way suggesting there were battles over the Stegadon carcasses in the cave.

“However, the Leptoptilos robustus remains thus far do not show any signs of either Komodo dragon tooth marks or hominin butchery.”

That makes the vultures their main competition when the island was crowded. That changed when the droughts hit, the grasslands replaced the forests and Homo sapiens showed up. Suddenly, the stegadons were getting killed and eaten before they could hide in the caves where they were easier prey or dead carrion for the giant storks. That pushed them into extinction on Flores, as it had in their similar living areas on the mainlands. There is still debate as to whether the arrival of modern humans, which appears to have briefly overlapped the end of the Homo floresiensis era, was the primary cause of the extinctions of Flores man, giant storks, stegadons and other creatures on the island, or whether they just contributed to their demise due to climate change. Whatever the cause, the giant flying Leptoptilos robustus marabou storks are gone for good on Flores.

You know the story

While they were still there, did the hobbits tell their little children that they were brought there at birth by the giant storks? It’s possible, since the myth exists in various countries ranging from North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The origin of the legend in German folklore is tied to the seasons – storks migrated away to Africa in the fall and returned in the spring when European couples (and storks) were having babies -- thus the association between the two. That seasonal migration exists in most countries where storks live, so tales of the giant birds finding babies in marshes and delivering them to homes could easily have been a folk tale elsewhere, even before it was spread by European migrants. There is also the legend in Greek mythology of the goddess Hera, who became jealous of a beautiful queen named Gerana and transformed her into a stork and stole her baby. The stork then stole back the baby and carried it away in its beak, creating the familiar image. Finally, Norse mythology says the stork builds nests on homes and brings luck in the form of babies to the families living there. That connection could easily have been made by Flores man and woman, couldn’t it?

“As the remains of Leptoptilos titan and Leptoptilos robustus appear to be the most recent representatives of these once plentiful giant marabou storks, Island Southeast Asia likely acted as a refugium for the last surviving members of these enigmatic birds.”

The giant storks died out on Flores a mere 20,000 years ago … when modern humans showed up. Unlike storks, they weren’t bringing good luck.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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