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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.

"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 fossil
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Contact: Ginger Pinholster
scipak@aaas.org
202-326-6440
American Association for the Advancement of Science
6-May-2004


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