Changes in rat size reveal habitat of 'Hobbit' hominin

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | March 13, 2019

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Veatch looks at piles of sediment excavated from Luang Bua as it is being wet sieved using the irrigation system of a rice paddy near the cave site. Photo courtesy of the Liang Bua research team and taken by Hanneke Meijer.

A study of rat body sizes shifting over time gives a glimpse into the habitat of the mysterious hominin Homo floresiensis — nicknamed the “Hobbit” due to its diminutive stature.

The Journal of Human Evolution is publishing the study, based on an analysis of thousands of rodent bones, mainly fore- and hind-limbs, from an Indonesian cave where H. floresiensis was discovered in 2003. The results indicate that the local habitat was mostly open grasslands more than 100,000 years ago, but began shifting rapidly to a more closed environment 60,000 years ago.

“Our paper is the first that we know of to use the leg bones of rats in this way to interpret ecological change through time, and it provides new evidence for the local environment during the time of Homo Floresiensis,” says Elizabeth Grace Veatch, a PhD candidate at Emory University and a first author of the study.

H. floresiensis stood only about 3 feet 6 inches tall and was known to have lived about 190,000 to 50,000 years ago on the oceanic island of Flores in eastern Indonesia. The tiny hominin shared the island with animals that could have come from the pages of a Tolkien novel, including giant Komodo dragons, six-foot-tall storks, vultures with a six-foot wingspan, and pygmy Stegodons — herbivores that looked like small elephants with swooping, oversized tusks.

It was the rats, however, that most interested Veatch.

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