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) birdâ€”about the size of a hummingbird you see at a backyard bird feederâ€”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 speciesâ€”which he calls “very weird-looking”â€”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.