Ancient Hummingbirds in Surprising Places

By Irby Lovette, director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program
science article on fossil hummingbirds

All 335 living species of hummingbirds are found exclusively in the Americas. These birds astounded and fascinated the adventurous European naturalists who first encountered them zipping about in the tropics. Ever since, the logical assumption has been that this family of tiny, hovering birds originally evolved in the New World. It therefore came as a great surprise when in 2003 a fossil-bird expert named Gerald Mayr recognized that several 30-million-year-old remains from a site in southern Germany were actually fossil hummingbirds. Mayr carefully described those hummingbird fossils, clearly documenting that hummingbirds occurred in the Old World during the early part of their evolutionary history.

Mayr’s specimens were clearly hummingbirds—features of their bone structure showed that they could rotate their wings to hover, and their elongated bills even suggested that they fed on flowers. However, these first-known European hummingbirds differed from all present-day hummingbirds in various details of their anatomy, suggesting that they were an early precursor on the hummingbird evolutionary tree.

A spectacular new hummingbird specimen from the same early period was recently unearthed in southern France and described by a team of paleontologists. The skeleton of the new hummingbird fossil is nearly complete, and the rock matrix around the bones even reveals the outline of the bird’s feathers, making it easily possible to discern the shapes of this ancient hummingbird’s wings and tail.

The new hummingbird is more similar to modern hummingbirds than were the fossils discovered earlier by Mayr, providing even stronger evidence that important aspects of hummingbird evolution may have occurred outside the Americas. Mayr and his French colleagues point out that the presence of ancient hummingbirds in what is now Europe does more than provide a radically new perspective on our ideas of where and when these birds evolved: hummingbirds often co-evolve with the plants they feed on, and it is now plausible that some modern plants in Europe and Asia retain attributes that stem from the time when they were pollinated by ancient hummingbirds.

Reference: Louchart, A., N. Tourment, J. Carrier, T. Roux, and C. Mourer-Chauviré. 2008. Hummingbird with modern feathering: an exceptionally well-preserved Oligocene fossil from southern France. Naturwissenschaften 95: 171–175.

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