Earlier this week, we talked about the shoebill stork, who is actually more closely related to pelicans than storks. You can read about this unique bird here. In today’s blog post, we’re going to turn the clock back (about 2.5 million years, not long at all) and talk about someone who definitely is in the stork family, Leptoptilos robustus.
Leptoptilos robustus (meaning tall, feathered, and strong in Greek) thrived in Indonesia from about 2.5 million years ago until fairly recently, having gone extinct just 11,000 years ago. They stood about as tall as a human today, with their average height being six feet tall, but weighed only 30 to 40 pounds. Most of the bodyweight of L. robustus was made by their bones, which probably meant that they wouldn’t have been able to fly. Their wings were also smaller than one would expect to see on a bird that could fly. However, some believe that they still could have been capable of flight for short periods of time even with these features.
At the time L. robustus lived, there were no large predators on the Indonesian islands they inhabited, meaning that they had very little competition for food. The behavior of modern-day storks indicates that had there been predators, the storks would have been scavengers and fought for their food with predators or other scavengers. The evidence suggesting that there were no competitors means that L. robustus had more than plentiful access to food. They might also have done a bit of hunting themselves, mostly preying on small mammals or reptiles.
Being on islands, L. robustus wasn’t immune to the “island factor”, which is the tendency for isolated species on islands to either grow unusually large or unusually small. In fact, skeletal fragments of L. robustus have been found on the same island as Homo floresiensis, the small hominid species nicknamed “hobbits”. At the time of L. robustus’ discovery, people began to speculate that the giant bird actually preyed upon the hominids, but researchers have argued against this theory but admitted that they can’t exclude the possibility.
So, why did L. robustus go extinct? 11,000 years ago is around the same time as humans began to populate the islands that these birds lived on, and so the story which happened all around the world, where humans come into a new environment and human a species to death, may have happened here, too. But there’s another theory: beginning about 15,000 years ago, Indonesia was getting wetter as the Earth warmed up. This disruption of the environment may not have been suitable for the species to have survived in.
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