German Site Yields Early Hummingbird Fossils

Article excerpt

Excavations in a clay pit in southwestern Germany have yielded two tiny treasures. 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 Noah 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. …