The fossilised bones of a giant stork big enough to devour human babies has been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, home of the miniature "hobbit" people who lived there more than 18,000 years ago.
The giant marabou stork grew up to 6ft tall, weighed 35lbs and would have towered over the adult hobbits, who were just 3ft tall. Although there was no evidence that it preyed on the tiny humans, scientists believe that it may well have dined on juvenile hobbits.
Bones of the stork, called Leptoptilos robustus, were unearthed from the floor of the Liang Bua cave, the same site where the bones of the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, were uncovered. Scientists believe that the stork may have lost its ability to fly, judging by the size and weight of its bones.
Hanneke Meijer, an expert in extinct bird species, made the discovery on a trip to Jakarta where the bones from the Ling Bua cave are kept in the national museum. "These big bones immediately stood out from the rest because of their large size," Dr Meijer said. "They clearly belonged to some big bird. I thought they must have belonged to a big raptor, such as a really big eagle, but to my surprise, when I was able to study them in more detail, I realised they were from a marabou stork. The leg bones are so thick, it must have spent much of its time on the ground."
Other than the human hobbits, who probably arrived on the island on boats, there were no large mammalian predators such as wolves or big cats on Flores at the time. This allowed many species to grow bigger, such as the stork and the giant rats that lived at the same time as the hobbits. "We think the stork moved into the position of being a top predator," Dr Meijer added. "It would have probably fed on the giant rats and even juvenile hobbits, which were the same size as the rats."
The giant stork most probably evolved from smaller storks that had flown to the island and, over time, lost the ability to fly away. The geographic isolation of Flores allowed the evolution of bizarre species, such as dwarf elephants, giant komodo dragons and miniature humans. Tests on the sediment around the bones suggest that the stork lived between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago. The hobbits were believed to have lived in isolation on the island for tens of thousand of years then vanished after a giant volcanic eruption about 17,000 years ago.
Despite its large size, the Flores stork was not the biggest to have existed; an even bigger flying stork once lived in what is now India.