National Geographic News
Photo of a fossilized bird.

Pumiliornis tessellatus was a three-inch-long (eight-centimeter) bird—about the size of a hummingbird. It is the earliest bird pollinator found to date.

Photograph by Sven Traenkner, Senckenberg Research Institute

Traci Watson

for National Geographic

Published May 27, 2014

Today's hummingbirds ferry pollen from blossom to blossom, helping flowering plants reproduce. Their occupational ancestors, however, were birds of a different feather. According to a paper published in this week's Biology Letters, a fossilized bird from millions of years ago offers the earliest, most direct evidence to date of bird pollination.

The discovery, uncovered in Germany's fossil-rich Messel Pit, reveals a three-inch-long (eight-centimeter) bird—about the size of a hummingbird you see at a backyard bird feeder—with scraps of iridescent insects and hundreds of grains of flower pollen in its stomach. That last supper would be familiar to today's avian pollinators, which siphon up large quantities of flower nectar but also eat pollen and insects, says the paper's lead author, ornithologist Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute of Frankfurt.

Branches of the Avian Tree

The fossilized bird belongs to an extinct species known as Pumiliornis tessellatus. Its feet were built for clinging to branches, and its long, slender beak had the large opening of a hummingbird. Yet it has no close relative among modern species.

Until now, the earliest examples of pollinating birds had been hummingbirds, also described by Mayr, that date back 30 million to 34 million years. But those offer only indirect evidence of bird pollination, because there's nothing to show that the birds actually visited flowers.

Based on the anatomy of earlier fossilized birds and plants, Mayr suspects that bird pollination began shortly before this new species—which he calls "very weird-looking"—took flight. The pollen found in its stomach is from an unknown plant species, but one that evolution had clearly already equipped to be bird friendly.

The new fossil shows that bird pollination is "older that we had evidence for previously, and [is] also more complicated than we suspected," says botanist Quentin Cronk of Canada's University of British Columbia, who was not involved in the new research. "This is clearly a different lineage of birds."

Competing Theories

Other researchers say the new find helps support the idea that bird pollination may have evolved and then disappeared over time. Now-extinct bees related to modern honeybees also lived at Messel, and "it could've been that this little ecosystem bit the dust, and what we have today is something that's more recent," says Conrad Labandeira, curator of fossil arthropods at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

The Messel site is rich in fossils of both plants and animals, "and this is a beautiful example of putting those two elements together" to show evolution by both parties, says paleobotanist David Dilcher of Indiana University.  It's a "handshake," he says, "across the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom ... from 47 million years ago."

40 comments
Judy Thorne
Judy Thorne

Hummingbirds at my feeder hover most of the time, but sit on the built-in perches some of the time.

Bill Dalton
Bill Dalton

Below is a link to my Flickr page. The photo, taken by me several years ago, clearly shows a ruby-throated hummingbird clinging to the leaf of a cardinal flower while feeding. I was very surprised to see the bird clinging since I too thought they only hovered when feeding!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bovinacowboy/3758157893/

PATRICIA FISCHER
PATRICIA FISCHER

Love hummingbirds,. They are so delicate. And this I did not know that they are also pollinators. But not enough of them either, as we are losing so many bee colonies. So very sad. judgement by one could cause such harm. 

Maas WEERABANGSA
Maas WEERABANGSA

A Humming bird, I believe, hovers beside the flower that it collects  flower nectar and   pollen from the flowers it visits. However, this particular fossil shows that it has "feet built for clinging to branches."  Nevertheless, the find is rare and the researchers aught to be commended. This brings to light that we are still to find many more results in the future.  

James Kohl
James Kohl

Re: 'Now-extinct bees related to modern honeybees also lived at Messel, and "it could've been that this little ecosystem bit the dust, and what we have today is something that's more recent..." 

The honeybee model organism detailed in Epigenomics and the concept of degeneracy in biological systems http://bfg.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/12/12/bfgp.elt050.abstract links nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled ecological adaptations from invertebrates to vertebrates like the white-throated sparrows via conserved molecular mechanisms of cell type differentiation (i.e., amino acid substitutions).http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/01/08/1317165111.abstract

Thus, everything known about the birds and the bees refutes the pseudoscientific nonsense of neo-Darwinism and returns us to Darwin's cautions that 'conditions of life' must be the first consideration, since natural selection of food is required for organisms to reproduce via the metabolism of nutrients to species specific pheromones that control the physiology of reproduction in species from microbes to man.

Glenn Suter
Glenn Suter

The article mentions hummingbirds, but it seems to me that this bird was more ecologically similar to the sunbirds of Africa and South Asia which hover weakly at best and usually feed from flowers while perched.

James Kohl
James Kohl

Nutrient-dependent/pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24693353

The article links the epigenetic landscape to the physical landscape of DNA in species from microbes to man via olfactory/pheromonal input and the conserved molecular mechanisms through which ecological variation results in ecological adaptations in cell type differentiation manifested in morphological and behavioral phenotypes.

The model refutes the ideas about mutations, natural selection, and the evolution of biodiversity touted by population geneticists and their idiot minions who invented neo-Darwinism. 

The Israeli school system recently decided to teach the pseudoscientific theory of evolution in middle schools so that it could be compared to what is currently known about the science of chemical ecology and species diversity (i.e., ecological speciation compared to mutation-driven evolution).

Hopefully, other school systems will begin to teach ecological speciation before students in other countries fall even further behind because they are currently taught to believe in pseudoscientific nonsense (neo-Darwinism).


Theiventhiran Kanthia
Theiventhiran Kanthia

I am having some difficulty here understanding the comment that the ecosystem from Messel perished long ago and what we have today is of recent origin.

Granted that the lineage of the bird described here is no more. Granted also is that there is a gap of (47-34)- 13 million years of bird pollination not accounted for yet. But isn't it a fact that the bees of today are descended from the bees of then or their cousins or whatever. The continuity of bees as a genus  proves the fact that even if the ecosystem in Messel, ( i.e. one particular geographical location)  disappeared, there was continuity of this ecosystem ( I am only talking about the system where animal pollination of trees took place) as a phenomenon elsewhere.

Therefore there was no need for the assertion that what we have is a new ecosystem and not related to the one that prevailed then. It is a good idea (on the assumption that the nature created nothing to go waste only for a short period), to look for new consumers, i.e. new species that lived then (and then disappeared) rather than saying that we had a coffee break here. Somebody in the know, please comment this assertion of mine.

Thank you 

Scott Gorrell
Scott Gorrell

"If humans evolved from apes, then why do apes still exist?" is a question creationists often ask. The short answer is the apes humans evolved from no longer exist. All primate species evolved from one species approximately 85 million years ago. Approximately 18 million years ago the group, Hominidae (from which would develop the bipedal family of apes), diverged from the group, Hylobatidae (from which gibbons and tailed monkeys would evolve). Approximately 14 million years ago Ponginae (early orangutan ancestors) split from the Hominidae family. Approximately 4-6 million years ago the ancestors of the apes and chimpanzees split. Along each step of this evolutionary ladder the ancestors would die off allowing their many and varied descendants to continue on. None of the monkeys, apes or humans alive today existed millions of years ago in the form they appear today. All are related, but none are the fore bearers of any others. For humans, apes and chimpanzees are not our "parent" species, but rather our siblings; and various other primates are varying stages of cousins, second cousins, third cousins and on and on.  

Phyllis Backus
Phyllis Backus

I am so sick of seeing the word "evolution"!!!  As if animals, plants, birds, fish and even humans could change their characteristics on their own whim!!  "Well, I need to adapt to this or that environment and be able to eat a new kind of plant, etc."   "I need a different kind of beak, hoof, fin, etc.   Doesn't that sound ridiculous?  "The earth is changing, I need to adapt to a different environment or my species will die out."  Well, guess what?  God has always been in control of the constantly changing world and created new species; they didn't "evolve" from one thing to another!


If scientists really studied the complex systems of modern creatures, they would understand that it is impossible for them to change on their own.  Some scientists have come to give credit where credit is due.  

Carlos MacLean
Carlos MacLean

¿En qué región o zona de Alemania lo han descubierto?.

Charles Wimpee
Charles Wimpee

I found my first fossil ( a trilobite)  over 50 years ago, when I was a little kid. I thought it was the most rare and precious thing I had ever seen. (Never mind the fact that trilobite fossils are quite common.) A lifetime and biology career later, I still have that fossil. Fossils connect us to the past in a way that nothing else can. This bird is magnificent. Bravo!

lilia zuniga
lilia zuniga

Do you have aditional info on this topic

Stan Piatkowski
Stan Piatkowski

I'd like to see the recreated look of the bird.  And I know there is away of finding out the colours so I am extremely curious.

G. Hodgson
G. Hodgson

Looks like it had quite a large brain relative to its size?

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

I`m curious to find out how many pollination birds were there back then. Maybe they have competed successfully with bees and butterflies?

Lily Zheng
Lily Zheng

???????????????

Jacky Chen
Jacky Chen

cool !!!!!!! i love fossils being discovered!!!

Leah K.
Leah K.

Very cool! Love it when new fossils are discovered!

Bill Dalton
Bill Dalton

@Maas WEERABANGSA Hello Maas. I'm sending you a link to my Flickr page. The photo, taken by me, several years ago, clearly shows a ruby-throated hummingbird clinging to the leaf of a trumpet vine flower. I was very surprised to see the bird clinging since I too thought they only hovered when feeding!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bovinacowboy/3758157893/

James Kohl
James Kohl

@Glenn Suter 

"Our findings strongly indicate that hummingbirds remain engaged in a dynamic diversification process, filling available ecological and spatial niches across North America, South America, and the Caribbean," the researchers write." http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140403132207.htm "One of the really cool features of hummingbird evolution is that they all eat the same thing yet have diversified dramatically," McGuire says. "It really is a big surprise that hummingbirds have divided the nectarivore niche so extensively."
My comment: Obviously, they do not all eat the same amounts of the same things or ecological variation in nutrient uptake would not enable ecological adaptations in their morphology and behavior. 

Kevin Hobson
Kevin Hobson

@Phyllis Backus If your imaginary friend was not created and therefor has no god to believe in, does that make god an atheist? 

A.L. Hern
A.L. Hern

Leave your Creationist hogwash in the church where it belongs. If you took even the slightest effort to actually understand Evolution -- all your energy is obviously devoted to condemning what you don't understand -- you'd know that life changes due to the forces exerted on it by the larger ecosystem. There's no "conscious" decision or effort to change, it just happens. There has never been any assertion -- except by Creationists -- that Evolution is in any way deliberate or conscious. THAT is just part of the insidious lies that Creationists tell to support what they cannot, and never can, prove.

Species adapt or die (and by adapt it means already possess enough traits necessary for survival so that individual members of that species flourish while others not possessing those traits die, leaving the species with a preponderance of members with those traits so that they then become the norm). And if they fail to adapt, ANOTHER species comes along to take its place. And if THAT species fails to adapt, there's ANOTHER and ANOTHER until a species appears that has the traits needed to integrate with the whole ecosystem.

YOU, the Creationists, on the other hand, are a doomed species, because you adamantly REFUSE to adapt to the weight of scientific evidence that has already buried you and your inane, hollow and fact-less arguments. You will go the way of the dinosaurs, the biggest difference being that future, more enlightened generations will curse your names and spit on your graves.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@Beryl Gulick Hanna pollen is incredibly durable and fossilizes very well. in some cases, the actual grain remains intact. scince every plant has an individual shape, we can then identify it it.

Beatriz Moisset
Beatriz Moisset

Hummingbirds eat insects, large amounts of them. It isn't just floral supplies. What do we know about their diversification on insect feeding?

Danny Sichel
Danny Sichel

@James Kohl  - they all eat (the same thing) -- that is, nectar. They do not all eat *the same amounts* of *the exact same type of nectar*, though.

James Kohl
James Kohl

Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled differentiation of cell types via amino acid substitutions in white-throated sparrow morphs arise due to differences in uniparental or biparental feeding. 

See: Estrogen receptor α polymorphism in a species with alternative behavioral phenotypes http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/01/08/1317165111.abstract

"Morph thus interacts with sex, and we should expect that the neural mechanisms meditating the behavioral effects of morph also depend on sex."

Kevin Hobson
Kevin Hobson

@Dale S. @A.L. Hern That is truly one of the silliest questions that Creationists ask and shows an utter lack of understanding of what evolution is. 

Walter Johnson
Walter Johnson

@Dale S. @A.L. Hern


Humans didn't evolve from apes.  Humans and apes share a last common ancestor (LCA).  The living primate to which humans are most closely related is the chimpanzee.  Humans and chimpanzees have about 98% of their DNA in common.  It is estimated that the ancestors of human and the ancestors of apes diverged about 5 to 7 million years ago.

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