Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


World’s oldest modern hummingbirds described in Science


The world’s oldest known modern hummingbird fossils have been discovered in Germany. The tiny skeletons are also the first modern-type hummingbird fossils ever found in the Old World. These creatures, with strikingly similar resemblances to today’s hummingbirds, lived in present-day Germany more than 30 million year ago. Although hummingbirds are currently restricted to the Americas, their long-extinct Old World "look-alikes" may have helped determine the shape of some Asian and African flowers alive today. These findings appear in the 07 May, 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the non-profit science society.

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]

"This is the oldest convincing record of modern-type hummingbirds," said Gerald Mayr, a zoologist from Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, a natural history museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

The extinct European hummingbirds were endowed with long, nectar-sucking beaks and wings designed for feeding while hovering, Mayr explained.

Mayr named the new hummingbird species Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, which means an "unexpected European version of Trochilus." Trochilus is the name of a modern hummingbird genus.

The discovery of modern hummingbirds in Europe begs the question, "What kinds of flowers did they feed on?"

In an attempt to answer this question, Mayr suggests that you can see the Old World hummingbirds’ evolutionary wake in certain plants growing in Africa and Asia today, including a species of Impatiens. Hummingbirds and some Old World plants may have evolved together, to suit each other’s needs.

This process of coevolution could explain the beak-friendly flowers that grow without perches, a design perfect for hummingbirds, on continents without these hovering birds. When hummingbirds disappeared from the Old World, insects like long-tongued bees could have taken over their pollination duties, Mayr speculates.

The next-oldest, modern hummingbird fossils are from South America and are only about one million years old, Mayr explained. With this new discovery, the fossil record for modern hummingbirds leaps back approximately 29 million years and zips halfway around the world.

The pair of four-centimeter-long skeletons, unearthed near the village of Frauenweiler in southern Germany, provides a glimpse into the lives of birds that died near a sea that dried up long ago. Scientists have recovered other land birds as well as marine birds, turtles, large sharks, bats and many plants from the same general area and time period.

"It’s fun to study species from this time period in Earth’s history, the early Oligocene, because some of the species begin resemble modern species," Mayr explained.

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, which are 2.5 times larger than their craniums even though the tips of the beaks are lost.

Details from their shoulder joints and upper arm bones suggest that the birds rotated their wings like today’s hummingbirds.

"The tip of the wing makes a figure 8," Mayr explained.

This wing motion allows hummingbirds to hover in front of the flower and eliminates the need for a perch.

"The remainder of the skeleton is also very hummingbird-like," Mayr said.

Mayr noted, however, that today’s hummingbirds have even more specialized hovering design.

These ancient hummingbirds grew to about the size of the Rufous-breasted Hermit Glaucis, a hummingbird from South America. While scientists have not recovered equally ancient, modern-type hummingbird fossils from South America, Mayr suspects that primitive hummingbirds lived in both Old and New World.

The question of when and why hummingbirds disappeared from Europe and other parts of the Old World, but not in the Americas, has no clear answer. Mayr, however, suspects ecological competition with other birds or with insects.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 265 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS

Ginger Pinholster | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Make way for the mini flying machines
21.03.2018 | American Chemical Society

nachricht New 4-D printer could reshape the world we live in
21.03.2018 | American Chemical Society

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

New 4-D printer could reshape the world we live in

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

21.03.2018 | Trade Fair News

Physicists made crystal lattice from polaritons

20.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>