The relationship between rodents and Homo floresiensis

Temporal shifts in the distribution of murine rodent body size classes at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia) reveal new insights into the paleoecology of Homo floresiensis and associated fauna

by: E. Grace Veatch, Matthew W. Tocheri, Thomas Sutikna, Kate McGrath, E. Wahyu Saptomo, Jatmiko, and Kristofer M. Helgen.

Summarized by: Kailey McCain

What data were used? Researchers once believed that Homo sapiens (i.e., modern humans) were the only hominid to reach the Indonesian islands. However, in the past few decades anthropologists, archeologists, and paleontologists have discovered an early hominid species’ cultural and skeletal remains, belonging to Homo floresiensis, on the island of Flores. Along with the hominid remains, 257,000 additional vertebrate skeletal elements were identified and 80% of the collected belonged to the murine rodent taxa (i.e., rats). The main rodent genera identified and used in this study varied in body size, which was used as a proxy (i.e., representative) to identify the paleoecology of the environment. The five genera used were: Papagomys, Spelaeomys, Hooijeromys, Komodomys, Paulamys, and Rattus (Figure 1).

Methods: The excavation site for the murine skeletal remains, as well as H. floresiensis, was within the Liang Bua, a limestone cave on Flores Island. The stratigraphy of Liang Bua was divided into sectors based on age, with the oldest being approximately 190-120 ka (thousand years ago) and the youngest sector at less than 3 ka. Once the sites were identified, researchers began excavating the remains by using a method called wet-sieving, which is the process of sediment separation using water to remove certain grain sizes and break apart agglomerates (i.e., a mass of sediment grains).

Once the murine remains were collected, researchers began identifying the different species by using molar and jaw sizes, as well as comparing the skeletal body to size to extant (i.e., living) rodents. In addition to dividing the remains into their different species, they were also further divided by size. The five distinct body size categories are: small (<100 g), medium (100-300 g), large (300-600 g), huge (600-1100 g), and giant (>1100 g).

Figure 1: This image represents how the different murine taxa, Papagomys, Spelaeomys, Hooijeromys, Komodomys, Paulamys, and Rattus, differ in body size and molar size.

Results: The data collected showed that the small and medium sized murines dominated the cave during the first two sectors (190-60 ka) but researchers noted a sharp decline in the medium sized murines during the 60-50 ka age range. This decrease in species can be correlated to the paleoclimate record, which indicated a substantial decrease in available vegetation. As time progressed to the age range 47-12 ka, researchers noticed no significant change in body size. This was a surprise to the researchers due to the geologic record indicating high levels of volcanic activity. The next range, 12-5 ka, exhibited a decrease in overall murine size that can be attributed to the high rainfall and monsoon season recorded for this time period. Finally, the age range 5-3 ka, showed the first increase of medium sized murines which could be correlated to the dispersal of Homo floresiensis and the subsequent opening of habitats, but will need further research to support the claim.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it shows the relationship between the dominant non-human animals and Homo floresiensis within the Liang Bua cave. Additionally, the researchers explored other ecological factors (e.g, weather, resource availability, volcanic activity) and showed how it affects not only the fauna in general, but showed the difference in responses between sizes.

Figure 2: This figure shows two images. Image (a.) shows researchers measuring a large modern cave rat, Papagomys armandvillei. Image (b.) shows a reconstructed image of H. floresiensis carrying a large rat over their shoulder.

The big picture: The researchers set out to determine the ways in which the dominant fauna, second to the hominid species, responded throughout time with the introduction and dispersal Homo floresiensis. While there was a relationship noted between murine size/distribution and hominid involvement, the data also suggested that additional ecological factors may have contributed; therefore, no significant conclusions can be made without additional research regarding the true impact of Homo floresiensis

Citation: Veatch, E. G., Tocheri, M. W., Sutikna, T., McGrath, K., Saptomo, E. W., & Helgen, K. M. (2019). Temporal shifts in the distribution of murine rodent body size classes at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia) reveal new insights into the paleoecology of Homo floresiensis and associated fauna. Journal of human evolution130, 45-60.

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