Modern day bird-watchers hoping to catch a glimpse of a hummingbird know to focus their search in the Americas. That¿s because the majority of the creatures inhabit Central and South America, with some species living in North America. But findings published today in the journal Nature suggest that this wasn¿t always the case. Two fossils recovered in Germany indicate that birds very similar to today¿s hummingbirds once flitted about the European countryside some 30 million years ago.
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.
The fossils, attributed to the new species Eurotrochilus inexpectus, suggest that hummingbirds once colonized the Old World, but it¿s unclear what caused their demise. Mayr notes that the birds probably evolved alongside beak-friendly plant species. Once the birds disappeared, insects such as long-tongued bees may have stepped in and assumed the pollinating duties, he posits.