Tag Archives: Homo floresiensis

Episode 294: Updates 5 and a New Zealand Parrot!

It’s our fifth updates and corrections episode, with some fun information about a New Zealand parrot, suggested by Pranav! Thanks also to Llewelly, Zachary, Nicholas, and Simon who sent in corrections.

Further reading:


Tyrannosaurus remains hint at three possible distinct species

Study refutes claim that T. rex was three separate species

The reign of the dinosaurs ended in spring

Impact crater may be dinosaur killer’s baby cousin

California mice eat monarch butterflies

‘Hobbit’ human story gets a twist, thanks to thousands of rat bones

Playground aims to distract mischievous kea

The kea showing off the bright colors under its wings:

A kea jungle gym set up to stop the birds from moving traffic cones around for fun:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This is our fifth annual updates episode, where I catch us up on new studies published about various animals we’ve talked about before. This is mostly just whatever happens to catch my eye and isn’t comprehensive by any means. Also, because things have been so busy for me the last few weeks, I decided to just go with what I’d already finished and not try to add more.

We’ll start as usual with corrections, then do some updates, then learn about a parrot from New Zealand, which was a suggestion from Pranav. This part of the episode started as a Patreon episode from 2019, so patrons, I promise your October bonus episode will be brand new and interesting and in-depth!

First, both Llewelly and Zachary pointed out that there are lions living in Asia, not just Africa. It’s called the Asiatic lion and these days, it only lives in a few small areas in India. It’s a protected animal but even though their numbers are increasing, there are probably still no more than 700 Asiatic lions living in the wild.

Next, Nicholas points out that vitiligo isn’t a genetic condition, it’s an autoimmune disorder that can be caused by a number of different diseases and conditions. You still can’t catch it from other people, though. We talked about vitiligo briefly in episode 241, about squirrels. Nicholas included a link, which I’ll put in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in learning more.

For our final correction, Simon questioned whether there really are only six living species of macaw known. This was polite of him, since I was completely wrong about this. In fact, there are six genera of macaws and lots of species, although how many species there are exactly depends on who you ask. Since this mistake made it into the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book, I am very irritated at myself, but thank you to Simon for helping me clear this up.

Let’s start our updates with the animal who gets an update every single time, Tyrannosaurus rex. A study published in February 2022 examined the fossilized remains of 37 T. rexes and suggested that there may actually be three distinct species of T. rex instead of just one. The study focused specifically on differences in teeth and leg bones that don’t seem to have anything to do with the individual’s age when it died or whether it was male or female.

However, in July 2022, another study found that all the T. rexes found so far do indeed belong to the same species. This is how science works, because new information is always being discovered and that means we have to reassess the things we thought we knew.

In other dinosaur news, in episode 240 we talked about the last day of the dinosaurs. Results of a study released in February 2022 suggest that the asteroid struck in early spring in the northern hemisphere. The asteroid hit the earth so hard that it rocked the entire continental plate that it struck, which caused massive waves unlike any other waves, since all the water above the continental plate was pushed upwards at once. This pushed all the sediment lying quietly on the bottom of the ocean up into the water, so much of it at once that it actually buried a lot of fish alive. The same thing happened in lakes and every other body of water. The fossil site we talked about in episode 240 is still being studied, the one that appears to date to literally the day of the asteroid impact, and preserved soft tissues in some of the fish have been discovered. Careful analysis of the fish show evidence that they all died in early spring. Researchers suggest that the time of year may have been especially bad for many dinosaurs, who were probably just starting to lay eggs and have babies.

In even more recent last-day-of-the-dinosaurs news, in August 2022 a study was released about a newly discovered crater off the coast of West Africa. Researchers are pretty sure it was from an asteroid impact, although much smaller than the big one that hit what is now Mexico and led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs. They’re also not completely certain when it formed, since it’s deep under the sea floor these days and was only discovered when scientists were examining seismic survey data of the sea floor. But it does seem to have formed about 66 million years ago, and another crater found in Ukraine is also about the same age. In other words, there may have been more than one asteroid that hit earth at the same time, either because a bigger asteroid broke into pieces as it entered earth’s atmosphere, or because smaller asteroids were orbiting the bigger one.

We’ve talked about the monarch butterfly several times, especially in episode 203. The monarch is a beautiful orange and black butterfly that migrates from the United States and Canada into central Mexico for the winter, where it gathers in huge groups. The monarch butterfly caterpillar primarily eats the milkweed plant, which contains toxins that the caterpillar stores in its body. Those toxins remain in the body even after the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, meaning the butterflies are toxic too. Birds and other animals learn to recognize the bright orange and black pattern of the butterfly and avoid eating it, because it tastes bad and makes them sick.

But a study from December 2021 determined that one animal does eat monarch butterflies, and a whole lot of them. Many species of mouse that live where monarch butterflies spend the winter, in a few spots in Mexico and California, will eat the butterflies, especially ones that fall to the ground either by accident or because they’re unhealthy and weak. The mice show resistance to the butterfly’s toxins.

Research into the small hominin remains on the island of Flores is ongoing, and the most recent findings shed some light on what might have happened about 60,000 years ago. The so-called Hobbit fossils have all been found at Liang Bua, a giant cave, but lots of other fossils have been found at the same site. A whole lot of those are from various species of rodent, especially rats, ranging in size from mouse-sized to ordinary rat-sized to giant rat sized, over two feet long including the tail, or about 75 cm.

Because we know a lot about the rats that lived on Flores, and in some cases still live there, we can infer a lot about what the area around Liang Bua was like over the centuries. Until about 60,000 years ago, most of the rat remains found were of medium-sized species that like open habitats. That means the area around Liang Bua was probably pretty open. But after about 60,000 years ago, there’s a big shift in what kind of rodents appear in the fossil record. More rats of smaller size moved in, ones that were adapted for life in forests, while the medium-sized rats moved out. That corresponds with other animals disappearing from the fossil record in and around the cave, including a species of Komodo dragon and a subspecies of Stegodon, an elephant relation that exhibited island dwarfism and was about the size of a cow. The Flores little people remains also vanish from the cave during this time, until by 50,000 years ago there are no signs of them.

But that doesn’t mean that H. floresiensis went extinct at that time. Researchers now think that as the land around the cave became more heavily forested, the Flores little people moved to other parts of the island that were more open. We don’t know where yet, and as a result we don’t know when exactly they went extinct. They might even have left the island completely. One neighboring island is Sulawesi, and researchers have found small stone tools on that island that are very similar to those made by H. floresiensis.

Modern humans probably arrived on the island of Flores about 46,000 years ago, and it’s possible that when they did, their small-statured cousins were still around.

We’ll finish with Pranav’s suggestion, a New Zealand parrot called the kea!

The kea is a type of parrot, but it doesn’t look much like a parrot at first glance. Parrots usually have brightly colored feathers but the kea appears more drab initially. It’s olive green with black-laced feathers, but it has bright orange feathers under its wings that show when it flies and the tips of its wings are blue. It’s a big, heavy bird with a wingspan more than three feet across, or one meter, and it has a big hooked beak like other parrots. It lives in the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island, the only parrot that lives in such a cold environment.

The kea is an omnivore but it mostly eats plants and insects. It will eat roadkill, small animals like rabbits, chicks of other species of bird, and trash. For over a century there were rumors that the kea would attack sheep, which led to the New Zealand government paying a bounty for dead keas that wasn’t lifted until 1970. By the time the bounty ended, there were only around 5,000 keas left, and even then the bird wasn’t fully protected until 1986.

So does the kea kill sheep or was that just an excuse to kill birds? Actually, the kea does attack sheep, or at least some keas do. Most of the attacks aren’t fatal, but we definitely know it happens because someone got it on video in 1992.

The keas land on the sheep’s back and pull out hunks of wool, which exposes and injures the skin underneath. Then they use their sharp beaks to dig into the wound and eat the fat from the living sheep. This can result in the sheep dying from infection and shock, naturally, so it’s no wonder sheep farmers disliked the kea. But the sheep is not an animal native to New Zealand while the kea is, plus the kea primarily eats plants—and sheep destroy the plants the kea eats, especially the ones high in vegetable lipids that provide the same high energy food that sheep fat does.

Besides, there’s some tantalizing evidence that the kea used to do the same thing to the moa, a huge flightless bird that lived in New Zealand until it went extinct after humans arrived. Moa bones dating to 4,000 years ago and found in a swamp along with lots of other well-preserved bones show markings on the pelvis that may be from kea beaks.

Like other parrots, the kea is remarkably intelligent and known for its tool use. It’s also infamous for its curiosity and willingness to disassemble things, including cars. I found an article about the kea in New Zealand Geographic that has some awesome stories about the bird, like this one that I’ll quote.

“In September 1983, the Old Pompolona Hut on the Milford Track was destroyed by flood when the pent-up Clinton River broke through its winter avalanche dam. The walking track season was only six weeks away. Planners, builders and helicopter crews worked night and day to complete a new hut complex before the first walkers arrived.

“The local clan of kea took a keen interest in all this frantic activity after a cold and quiet winter. Just what were these people up to? One bird, for whom building materials seemed to hold a particular attraction, began stealing nails. So persistent was the bird’s thievery that an exasperated carpenter chased it (in vain) over the roof of the new main hut. While his back was turned, another kea stole his packet of roll-your-owns, shredding tobacco and papers to the raucous approval of spectator kea perched in nearby trees.

“Weeks later, after the new hut had been completed, the purloined nails were discovered. They had been neatly laid in the gutters of an outbuilding’s iron roof, sorted according to size.”

The kea’s intelligence, tool use, and problem-solving abilities line up with those in corvids like crows and ravens. Studies show that corvids are more successful figuring out tasks that require them to make pecking motions in one way or another while parrots, including the kea, are more successful when the tasks require pulling motions. This makes sense, since parrots have a hooked beak that they use to pull things apart, like rotting logs to get at grubs, while corvids have straight beaks that they use to stab through things to find food.

The kea is also really sociable. Young keas play together, often using items as toys. For instance, from the same article, witnesses at a ski resort watched a kea steal a plastic mug, fly off with it, and start up a game of catch with it with a group of other keas.

The kea even has a particular call it makes to encourage other keas to play. In a recent study, when the call was broadcast to some captive keas over a loudspeaker, the keas immediately started a game of chase. Researchers think the call isn’t so much an invitation to play but is more like laughter which makes other keas want to laugh along, or in this case play.

This is what the play call sounds like:

[kea call]

The kea builds its nests in burrows it digs in the ground, with some burrows 20 feet long, or 6 meters. The nesting chamber is lined with soft plant material. Females lay two to five eggs, which hatch in about three weeks. Despite the parents’ care, more than half of babies don’t survive their first year, mostly due to introduced predators like rats, stoats, and possums. But if a kea survives to grow up, it can live up to 50 years or possibly more.

Young keas, like young adult humans, can cause a lot of mischief that sometimes leads to tragedy. A lot of keas are killed by cars because they find cars and roads interesting. They especially like to move road cones, which of course is also dangerous to humans. One community set up a kea jungle gym well off the road to give keas a safe place to play, and it succeeded so well that other communities have built kea jungle gyms too.

Kea numbers are improving slowly, with an estimated 7,000 individuals alive today. Part of the problem is that keas find humans interesting. They like our things, which they want to steal or destroy, and they like our junk food, which they want to eat. In other words, they’re suspiciously like us. Only they can fly.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 026: Humans Part Two

Part two of our humans episode is about a couple of our more distant cousins, the Flores little people (Homo floresiensis) and Homo naledi, with side trips to think about Rumpelstiltskin, trolls, and the Ebu gogo.

Homo floresiensis skull compared to a human skull. We are bigheaded monsters in comparison. Also, we got chins.

Homo naledi’s skull. I stole that picture from Wits University homepage because I really liked the quote and it turns out it’s too small really to read. Oh well.

Some of our cousins. Homo erectus in the middle is our direct ancestor. So is Lucy, an Australopithecus, although she lived much longer ago.

Show transcript

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week is part two of our humans episode. Last week we learned how modern humans evolved and about two of our close cousins, Neandertals and Denisovans. This week, we’re going to walk on the weirder side of the hominin world.

Before we get started, this episode should go live on July 31, 2017, one week before I fly to Helsinki, Finland for WorldCon 75! Don’t worry, I’ve got episodes scheduled to run normally until I get home. If you’re going to be in Finland between August 8 and August 17, let me know so we can meet up. On Thursday, August 10 and 4pm I’ll be on a panel in room 207 about how to start a podcast, so check it out if you’re attending the convention. I’ll also be in Oslo during the day on August 7 and have two birding trips planned with lunch in between, and I’d love you to join me if you’re in Oslo that day too. Then, two weeks after I return from Finland, I’ll be attending DragonCon over Labor Day weekend. blah blah blah this is old news

Now, let’s learn about some of our stranger distant cousins!

In 2003, a team of archaeologists, some from Australia and some from Indonesia, were in Indonesia to look for evidence of prehistoric human settlement. They were hoping to learn more about when humans first migrated from Asia to Australia. One of the places they searched was Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores. They found hominin remains all right, but they were odd.

The first skeleton they discovered was remarkably small, only a bit more than three and a half feet tall [106 cm] although it wasn’t a child’s skeleton. That skeleton was mostly complete, including the skull, and appears to be that of a woman around 30 years old. She’s been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores, or just Flo to her friends. Officially, she’s LB1, the type specimen for a new species of hominin, Homo floresiensis.

But until very recently, that statement was super controversial. In fact, there’s hardly anything about the Flores remains that aren’t controversial.

At first researchers thought the remains were not very old, maybe only twelve or thirteen thousand years old, or 18,000 at the most. Stone tools were found in the same sediment layer where Flo was discovered, as were animal bones. The tools were small, clearly intended for hands about the size of Flo’s, which argued right off the bat that she was part of a small-statured species and wasn’t an aberrant individual.

The following year, 2004, the team returned to the cave and found more skeletal remains, none very complete, but they were all about Flo’s size. Researchers theorized that the people had evolved from a population of Homo erectus that had arrived on the island more than three quarters of a million years before, and that they had become smaller as a type of island dwarfism. A volcanic eruption 12,000 before had likely killed them all off, along with the pygmy elephants they hunted.

But as more research was conducted, the date of the skeletons kept getting pushed back: from 18,000 years old to 95,000 years old to 150,000 years old to 190,000 years old. Dating remains in the cave is difficult, because it’s been subject to flooding and partial flooding over the centuries. Currently, the skeletal remains are thought to date to 60,000 years ago and the stone tools to around 50,000 years ago.

When news of the finds was released, the press response was enthusiastic, to say the least. The skeletons were dubbed Hobbits for their small size, which made the Tolkien estate’s head explode, and practically every few weeks it seems there was another article about whether there were small people still living quietly on the island of Flores, yet to be discovered.

And, of course, there were lots of indignant scientists who were apparently personally angry that the skeletons were considered a new species of hominin instead of regular old Homo sapiens. Part of the issue was that only one skull has ever been found. It’s definitely small, and the other skeletal remains are all correspondingly small, and the stone tools are all correspondingly small, and the skull shows a number of important differences from that of a normal human. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a subspecies of Homo sapiens, and of course that needs to be investigated. But some of the arguments got surprisingly ugly. There were even accusations that the entire find was faked. One person even suggested that the skull’s teeth showed evidence of modern dental work.

Amid all this, two unfortunate things happened. First, in December 2004 an Indonesian paleoanthropologist named Teuku Jacob removed almost all the bones from Jakarta’s National Research Centre of Archaeology for his own personal study for three months. When he returned them, two leg bones were missing, two jaw bones were badly damaged, and a pelvis was smashed. Then, not long after, Indonesia closed access to Liang Bua cave without explanation, although the archeological community suspected it was due to Jacob’s influence, and didn’t reopen it until 2007 after Jacob died.

It’s important to note that Jacob was a proponent of the theory that the remains found in Liang Bua cave were microcephalic individuals of the prehistoric local population, not a new hominin species at all. He also had a history of keeping Indonesian fossils from being studied unless he specifically approved of the research.

At any rate, since then, repeated studies of the LB1 skull have suggested that Homo floresiensis is a separate species of hominin and not a Homo sapiens with evidence of pathology, whether microcephaly or another disease, or a population with a genetic abnormality. There’s still plenty of research needed, of course, and hopefully some more skulls will be found. But it seems clear that Homo floresiensis isn’t just a weird subspecies of Homo sapiens.

One of the more common theories in the last few years was that Homo floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus, although Homo erectus was a lot bigger and more human-like than the Flores little people. But results of a study released just a few months ago show that Homo floresiensis shared a common ancestor with Homo habilis around 1.75 million years ago. Homo floresiensis may have evolved before migrating out of Africa, or their ancestor migrated and evolved into Homo floresiensis. Either way, they spread as far as Indonesia before dying out around 50,000 years ago.

Other hominin remains have since been found on the island. Part of a jaw and teeth were found at Mata Menge on the island of Flores, some 50 miles away from the cave. It’s around 700,000 years old and is a bit smaller than the same bones in the later skeletons. Researchers think it’s an older form of Homo floresiensis.

Possibly not coincidentally, modern humans arrived on the island about 50,000 years ago, maybe earlier, bringing with them the arts of fire, painting, making jewelry from animal bones, and killing all of our genetic cousins.

We don’t know if humans deliberately killed the Homo floresiensis people or if they just outcompeted them. It does seem pretty certain that the two hominin species coexisted on the island for at least a while. It’s even possible that knowledge of the strange small people of the island has persisted in folk tales told by the Nage people of Flores. Stories about the ebu gogo have been documented for centuries. They were supposed to be little hairy people around three feet tall [one meter], with broad faces and big mouths. They were fast runners with their own language and would eat anything, frequently swallowing it whole. In some stories they sometimes kidnapped human children to make the children teach them how to cook, although the children always outwitted the ebu gogo.

Supposedly, at some point, tired of their children being kidnapped and their food being stolen, villagers gave the ebu gogo palm fibers so they could make clothes. The ebu gogo took the fibers to their cave, and the villagers threw a torch in after them. The fiber went up in flames and killed all of the ebu gogo.

Until the discovery of Homo floresiensis, anthropologists assumed the stories were about macaque monkeys. But there’s a genuine possibility that the ebu gogo tales are memories of Homo floresiensis. It’s not just cryptozoologists and bigfoot enthusiasts making the connection between the ebu gogo and Homo floresiensis. Articles and editorials have appeared in journals such as Nature, Scientific American, and Anthropology Today. At least, they did back when archeologists thought Flo was only about 12,000 years old.

But we still don’t know for certain when Homo floresiensis went extinct. There may be remains that are much more recent than 50,000 years ago. Locals mostly say there are no ebu gogo left but that they were still around about a century ago. I don’t know how long historical elements can persist in an oral tradition without becoming distorted. As we discussed in episode 17, about Thunderbird, oral history is easily lost if the culture is disrupted by invasion, disease, war, or other major episodes. But some stories are tougher than others, and those that are less history and more entertainment—although they may contain warnings too—can be very, very old.

Researchers have traced some traditional folktales, like Rumpelstiltskin, back some 4,000 or even 6,000 years, although not without controversy. But while Rumpelstiltskin is usually described as a small person, no one’s suggesting that story is about real events. It’s the juxtaposition of the Flores discoveries of small skeletons and the oral tradition or small people living on the island that got researchers excited. And as it happens, there is an oral tradition many miles and many cultures away from Flores that might be something similar.

Old Norse stories about trolls date back thousands of years. The trolls vary in appearance and sometimes have a lot of overlap with other monsters, but generally are described as big and strong, not very smart, often placid unless provoked, and usually evil, or at least godless. Sometimes they capture humans who outwit them to escape. In one story, a man named Esbern Snare wanted to marry a woman, but her father would only agree to the marriage if Esbern would build a church. Esbern struck a deal with a troll, who said he would build the church—on one condition. If Esbern couldn’t guess the troll’s name by the time the church was built, the troll would demand as his payment Esbern’s heart and eyes.

Esbern agreed, but he failed to trick the troll into telling him his name. On the final day, in despair Esbern threw himself down on the bank of a river, where he overheard the troll’s wife singing to her baby:

“Hush, hush, baby mine,

Tomorrow comes Finn, father thine,

To bring you Esbern’s heart and eyes

To play with, so now hush your cries.”

Esbern rushed back to the church and greeted Finn the troll by name. In some version of the story, Finn is so furious that he leaves the church incomplete in some way, usually a missing pillar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Rumpelstiltskin story, that’s a variant. Oh, and Esbern Snare was a real person who lived in the twelfth century, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually strike any deals with trolls.

But I do wonder if some elements of troll folklore might be derived from memories of Neandertal people. I’m not the first to suggest this, although it is a pretty fringey theory. And in the end, we just don’t have any way to know. But it is interesting to think about.

As you may remember from part one of the humans episode, Homo sapiens evolved roughly 200,000 years ago. But around the same time, or a little earlier, another cousin in our family tree was living in southern Africa. Remains of Homo naledi were only discovered in 2013 by some cavers. Partial skeletons from at least 15 individuals were recovered in one field season, but due to narrow cave passages, the field work had to be done by people of small stature who weren’t claustrophobic, mostly women.

Homo naledi is a mixture of primitive and advanced features. Primitive in this case means more like our ape ancestors, and advanced means more like modern humans. Homo naledi had long legs and feet that looked just like ours, but also had a small brain and fingers that are much more curved than ours—not characteristics that would look out of place a few million years ago, but surprising to discover in our family tree at about the same time that modern humans were evolving.

On the other hand (with curved fingers), evolution doesn’t have an end goal. Homo sapiens is not the pinnacle of creation to which all other living beings aspire. We’re just another animal, just another great ape. If Homo naledi was successful in their environment with a small brain, that’s all that matters from an evolutionary standpoint.

There are lots of remains left in the cave, so many in fact that some researchers are convinced they didn’t get there by accident. It’s possible that the cave was used as a burial pit, maybe even over the course of centuries. Bodies may have been dropped in a deep shaft and were then moved by periodic flooding to the remote chamber where they were found, or they may have been carried to the cave depths and left there.

Homo naledi wasn’t a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, but they were definitely a kind of human—no matter how small their brains may have been.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!