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Ancient Hummingbirds Were European

6 May 2004 (All day)
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Wider range. Hummingbirds, such as Amazilia rutila, live only in the Americas today, but they once inhabited Europe.

If it's hummingbirds you're after, the New World is the only place to be. Of the 300-plus species of the hovering, nectar-sipping birds, almost all live in Central and South America, and experts agree that all species of modern hummingbirds evolved there. But now, fragile bones in 30-million-year-old rocks from southern Germany show that hummingbirds were once much farther flung than anyone expected.

Hummingbird history has long been shrouded in mystery, chiefly because the delicate-boned creatures have left so few fossils. A few fossils of what appeared to be primitive hummingbirds have turned up in the Old World, but as far as anyone knew, their modern descendents never set wing in Eurasia. The new fossil, called Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, is the first ever of a modern-looking hummingbird. When Gerald Mayr of the Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg in Frankfurt, Germany, came across two partially prepared specimens of the creature in a museum drawer in Stuttgart, "I didn't have a real idea what it was," he says. But closer inspection revealed evidence that the specimens were hummingbirds. The clincher was the short, stocky humerus with a bony knob that probably allows the wing to rotate during hovering flight. Mayr describes the discovery in the 7 May issue of Science.

Eurotrochilus demonstrates that in the Old World, hummingbird ancestors had evolved the main features of living hummingbirds, such as a long, slender beak adapted for feeding on nectar, by 30 million years ago, Mayr says. That might explain why a handful of European flowers appear adapted for hovering birds, he adds. It could be that these plants first evolved with hummingbirds and were pollinated by them."The amazing thing about this fossil is that it's essentially a modern hummingbird," says Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut, Storrs. "My mind is a little blown." The finding raises as many questions as it answers. Figuring out where the early hummingbirds came from and why they became extinct, for example, will take more discoveries. For paleontologists scouting for fossil hummingbirds, the Old World may become the new place to be.

Related site
Gerald Mayr's Science paper

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