Two tiny treasures have been excavated in southwestern Germany. They're the first fossils of hummingbirds from the Old World and, by far, the oldest ones unearthed anywhere.
Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly forward, backward, and sideways, as well as hover for sustained periods. Those aeronautical talents, along with long bills and even longer tongues, enable the avian acrobats to drink nectar from small, tubular flowers. Although there are more than 300 living hummingbird species, these birds are found only in North and South America, says Gerald Mayr, an ornithologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.
The two new specimens, unearthed from deposits with fish and plants that date to between 34 million and 30 million years ago, have major wing bones that are short and stocky, like those of living hummingbirds. Aptly named by Mayr as Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, which translates as "unexpected European version of a hummingbird," the newly identified species had a long, narrow bill that was more than twice as long as its skull. This characteristic, as well as others related to the creature's wing structure, suggests that the birds hovered and drank nectar just as their latter-day relatives do. Mayr describes the ancient species in the May 7 Science.
Previously, the oldest fossils of hummingbirds were 1-million-year-old specimens recovered from cave deposits in Central America, reports sciencenews.org
According to sciam.com Gerald Mayr of the natural history museum Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg in Frankfurt analyzed two bird skeletons found in Frauenweiler, a village in southern Germany. The four-centimeter-long remains reveal long beaks about 2.5 times larger than their skulls, and shoulder joints and upper arm bones that allowed the animals to hover. "The tip of the wing makes a figure eight," Mayr explains. "This is the oldest convincing record of modern-type hummingbirds." Indeed, the next oldest fossils of modern hummingbirds, discovered in South America, date to just one million years ago.
Mayr named the new fossil species Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, a name that expresses the unexpected nature of his find.
"The amazing thing about this fossil is that it's essentially a modern hummingbird," Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut told Science. "My mind is a little blown."
The pair of inch-and-a-half-long skeletons have shoulders that would have allowed the wings to rotate, a key feature that gives hummingbirds their ability to hover and even fly backward.
The existence of hummingbirds so long ago may help explain why certain flowers were able to evolve in Europe and Asia that have no landing pad for pollinators such as short-tongued bees, Mayr said, informs reuters.com