Study of fossil remains on Sumba island reveals unique creature history

September 21, 2017 by Bob Yirka, report

Pleistocene fossils from Lewapaku. Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1278
(—A team of researchers from the U.K., Indonesia and Australia has found fossil evidence of several unique creatures that once lived on the Indonesian island of Sumba. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group describes their expeditions to the remote island, the fossils they found and their theories regarding the evolutionary history of the Wallacean archipelago.

Wallacea is an archipelago that lies between Australia and Asia—one of its most famous is Flores due to the discovery there in 2004 of of Homo floresiensis, subsequently dubbed "the Hobbit" due to its diminutive stature. That discovery caused archeologists to wonder if other islands in the archipelago might harbor other fossil remains of interest. Little research has been conducted in the region, which makes the area attractive for new research endeavors. In this new effort, the researchers chose to focus on the island of Sumba, which lies directly south of Flores.

As part of their expeditions (conducted in 2011 and 2014), the researchers report that they found the fossilized remains of several interesting and unique extinct creatures. The list includes small creatures that resembled elephants (Stegodon), two species of giant rats, some large varanid reptiles and even evidence that the Komodo dragon once lived on the island. They note that some of the species were dated to a time as recent as just 12,000 years ago. It is still not known, of course, why the creatures disappeared from the island, though the team suggests it might have been due to the arrival of humans.

Evidence of the Komodo dragon on the island, the group points outs, offers the first evidence of their existence on an island other than Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar. And that suggests they likely lived on some of the other unexplored island in the area, as well. The group's findings also indicate that the archipelago overall likely holds evidence of a wide range of undiscovered and possibly the remains of other human relatives. They suggest much more research needs to be done.

Explore further: Komodo dragon attacks tourist in Indonesia

More information: Samuel T. Turvey et al. Quaternary vertebrate faunas from Sumba, Indonesia: implications for Wallacean biogeography and evolution, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1278

Historical patterns of diversity, biogeography and faunal turnover remain poorly understood for Wallacea, the biologically and geologically complex island region between the Asian and Australian continental shelves. A distinctive Quaternary vertebrate fauna containing the small-bodied hominin Homo floresiensis, pygmy Stegodon proboscideans, varanids and giant murids has been described from Flores, but Quaternary faunas are poorly known from most other Lesser Sunda Islands. We report the discovery of extensive new fossil vertebrate collections from Pleistocene and Holocene deposits on Sumba, a large Wallacean island situated less than 50 km south of Flores. A fossil assemblage recovered from a Pleistocene deposit at Lewapaku in the interior highlands of Sumba, which may be close to 1 million years old, contains a series of skeletal elements of a very small Stegodon referable to S. sumbaensis, a tooth attributable to Varanus komodoensis, and fragmentary remains of unidentified giant murids. Holocene cave deposits at Mahaniwa dated to approximately 2000–3500 BP yielded extensive material of two new genera of endemic large-bodied murids, as well as fossils of an extinct frugivorous varanid. This new baseline for reconstructing Wallacean faunal histories reveals that Sumba's Quaternary vertebrate fauna, although phylogenetically distinctive, was comparable in diversity and composition to the Quaternary fauna of Flores, suggesting that similar assemblages may have characterized Quaternary terrestrial ecosystems on many or all of the larger Lesser Sunda Islands.

Related Stories

Komodo dragon attacks tourist in Indonesia

May 4, 2017

A komodo dragon, one of the world's largest lizards, attacked a tourist in Indonesia who was trying to photograph the giant creatures feasting on a goat, police said Thursday.

Likely ancestor of mystery 'hobbit' found

June 8, 2016

Half-sized humans who lived 700,000 years ago were almost certainly the ancestors of enigmatic "hobbits" whose fossils were found on the same Indonesian isle in 2013, scientists stunned by their own discovery reported Wednesday.

New species of Pleistocene stork found on 'hobbit' island

December 8, 2010

( -- Fossils of a giant Pleistocene stork found on Flores island, Indonesia, belong to a new species according to scientists. The now extinct bird was probably flightless, and lived on the same island as Homo ...

Stone-age tools found, but who wielded them?

January 13, 2016

Scientists have discovered stone-age tools at least 118,000-years-old on an Indonesian island but no trace of the early humans that made them, according to a study released Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.