December 29, 2005

Fictional King Kong mirrors odd island facts

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - King Kong may be a far-fetched
creation of Hollywood but scientists say the big ape has some
basis in biological fact: animals on islands often evolve into
gigantic versions of their mainland kin.

"There is a whole body of research on islands which
suggests gigantism occurs on them but of course nothing on the
scale of King Kong," said Sue Lieberman, an evolutionary
biologist and director of the global species programme for WWF

"There is evidence that this happens because of isolation
and a lack of competition ... the further an island is from the
mainland the more potential there is for the evolution of new
species," she told Reuters by telephone from Rome.

King Kong, which is reigning at the North American box
office this holiday season, is a remake of the 1930s classic
about a giant gorilla found on an uncharted island.

Besides falling for the female lead, director Peter
Jackson's ape battles predatory dinosaurs on an island that is
also inhabited by titanic bats and bugs.


Jackson's monsters may be a stretch, but it is a fiction
which mirrors some strange facts about island life.

"Islands are havens and breeding grounds for the unique and
anomalous. They are natural laboratories of extravagant
evolutionary experimentation," writes David Quammen in his book
'The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of

There are many examples of what biologists term "gigantism"
on islands.

These include the Komodo dragons, the world's largest
lizards which can be 3 metres (10 feet) long or more and weigh
up to 225 kg (500 lbs).

Found on a few small Indonesian islands, the Komodo -- a
recorded man-eater -- is in many ways as chilling as anything
from Jackson's fertile imagination.

Some of these quirks of evolution have occurred in a matter
of decades -- an astonishing speed.

On remote Gough Island in the South Atlantic, "monster
mice" are eating metre-high albatross chicks alive, threatening
rare bird species on the world's most important seabird colony.

The house mice -- believed to have made their way to Gough
decades ago on sealing and whaling ships -- have evolved to
about three times their normal size.

Their remarkable growth seems to have been given a boost by
a vast reservoir of fresh meat and protein in the form of the
endangered Tristan albatross chicks on which they are feeding.


The huge Indian Ocean island of Madagascar -- the setting
of another 2005 Hollywood blockbuster -- has also given rise to
plenty of natural oddities.

These included massive elephant birds that stood over 3
metres (9 ft 10 in) in height and lemurs that weighed 80 kg
(176 lbs) and more.

Madagascar broke away from East Africa more than 100
million years ago, leaving it to evolve a rich ecosystem with
10,000 plant species, 316 reptiles and 109 bird species -- many
of which are found nowhere else.

Moving in the opposite direction, island species have also
displayed a marked tendency to shrink in size -- a process
known as "dwarfism" -- though "Mini-Kong" would probably be a
flop as a sequel.

This has been observed in island-dwelling hippos, elephant
and deer, many of which have mutated into much smaller versions
of their continental cousins.


Seemingly the last of his kind, King Kong also reflects
another phenomenon of islands -- their disturbingly high rate
of extinction, especially when humans land on them.

Many island species have evolved in a predator-free
environment -- producing things like flightlessness in birds --
which makes them easy prey for meat-eating intruders.

Such was the fate of Madagascar's elephant birds as well as
the famed dodo of Mauritius.

According to the World Conservation Union, close to 800
species have become extinct since 1500, when accurate
historical and scientific records began.

While the vast majority of extinctions since that time have
occurred on islands, over the past 20 years continental
extinctions have become as common.

Scientists say this is partly because continental habitats
are being diced up by human activities -- a process that is
creating what some biologists term "virtual islands."

King Kong's real-life relatives are marooned on one of
these "islands" on East Africa's Virunga mountain range, home
to the last of the world's roughly 700 mountain gorillas.

Conservationists say poaching, logging and disease will
soon wipe out the last of the world's great apes unless new
strategies are devised to save humankind's closest relatives.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria in Africa
to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Asia, scientists fear
populations of gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans could
disappear within a generation without urgent action.