Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
[ E-mail ]

Contact: Science Press Package
American Association for the Advancement of Science

World's oldest hummingbirds

Cinnamon hummingibrd (Amazilla rutila) feeding on Ipomoea neei (Convolvulaceae) in Mexico. The Cinnamon hummingbird measures about 11 cm (tip of beak to tip of tail) and is only slightly larger than the fossil. Image J. Ferdinand.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Hummingbirds in Europe? While the only hummingbirds you'll see flying around Europe these days have probably escaped from captivity, hummingbirds lived wild and free in present-day Germany and in other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa more than 30 million years ago. A scientist discovered fossilized bird skeletons from Germany that are the world's oldest known evidence of creatures that looked like today's hummingbirds.

Finding these bones in Europe is especially exciting. They are the first bones with a modern hummingbird design ever found outside of North, Central or South America.

These European hummingbird skeletons measure about 4 centimeters (about an inch and a half) from head to tail. They have long beaks and wings designed for hovering, says Gerald Mayr, the scientist who identified the bones. He works in a natural history museum in Frankfurt, Germany, called Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg.

The world's oldest known modern hummingbird fossil. The specimen is coated with ammonium chloride. Image Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Three of the key features that give the skeletons modern hummingbird characteristics are their tiny size, the design of the shoulder and upper arm bone, and their long beaks.

The birds were discovered near the village of Frauenweiler in southern Germany. Germany and all of Europe is part of the "Old World" a region that also includes Africa, Asia and Australia. Finding modern-looking hummingbird fossils in the Old World might help to explain the existence of certain flowers in Asia and Africa that seem to scream, "I'm trying to attract a hummingbird!"

Why do plants with flowers that seem to be designed to feed a hummingbird grow in parts of the world with no hummingbirds?

Interpretative drawing of the new hummingbird species (Eurotrochilus inexpectatus). Image Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Mayr has one possible explanation. He imagines a time when the ancestors of these hummingbird-friendly flowers and hummingbirds lived together in the Old World. They may have each changed the appearance of the other through a process of back-and-forth interaction called "coevolution."

At some point the hummingbirds disappeared but the plants lived on, according to Mayr. Insects like long-tongued bees could have taken over the hummingbirds' pollination duties. Pollination is necessary for plants to produce seeds.

This "case of the disappearing hummingbird" is a good example of how discovery of a very old fossil can change the way we look at the plants and animals that are alive today.Mayr named the new hummingbird species Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, which means an "unexpected European version of Trochilus." Trochilus is the name of a group of today's hummingbirds.

These findings appear in the 07 May 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the non-profit science society.


Back to Science for kids

Science is published by AAAS, the non-profit science society.