News / Science & Technology

Birds of a Feather, Hummingbird Family Tree Unveiled

FILE - An Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) feeds on a Bird of Paradise plant along a canyon in Encinitas, California, Sept. 12, 2007.
FILE - An Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) feeds on a Bird of Paradise plant along a canyon in Encinitas, California, Sept. 12, 2007.
Reuters
For such small creatures, hummingbirds certainly have racked up an outsized list of unique claims to fame.
 
They are the smallest birds and the smallest warm-blooded animals on Earth. They have the fastest heart and the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate. They are the only birds that can fly backward. And scientists reported on Thursday that they also have a complicated evolutionary history.
 
Researchers constructed the family tree of these nectar-eating birds using genetic information from most of the world's 338 hummingbird species and their closest relatives. They said hummingbirds can be divided into nine groups, with differences in size, habitat, feeding strategy and body shape.
 
The common ancestor to all species in existence today lived about 22 million years ago in South America, several million years after hummingbirds were known to be flourishing in Europe, they said. Today's hummingbirds are found only in the Americas.
 
They boast a unique set of capabilities, said University of New Mexico ornithologist Christopher Witt, one of the scientists in the study published in the journal Current Biology.
 
“They can hover stationarily or move in any direction with precision, even in a strong wind. They also have the highest rate of energy consumption per gram of any animal,” Witt said.
 
“They have sparkling colors that are breathtaking when seen under perfect lighting conditions. This combination of speed, agility and beauty is unmatched in nature,” Witt added.
 
Hummingbirds come in a spectacular range of colors, with males more colorful than females. They often have green feathers on the body, with the head coming in “virtually every color you can imagine: gold, red, blue, purple, magenta, often iridescent,” said biologist Jimmy McGuire of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.
 
Their name derives from the humming sound produced by the rapid flapping of their wings. The largest hummingbirds flap about 15 times per second, while the smallest approach 80 times per second, Witt said.
 
Hummingbirds consume mostly flower nectar, and have long, slender bills and lengthy, specialized tongues to collect this sweet treat. But because the nectar is almost devoid of protein, they also eat small insects.
 
'Operating on the Extremes'
 
“They have to constantly feed because they're powering this system that has such great energy requirements. Many of these hummingbirds go into torpor [dormancy] at night so that they don't starve to death overnight, which is pretty cool. They're just operating on the extremes,” McGuire said.
 
While hummingbirds now live only in the New World - North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean - their oldest fossils were unearthed in Europe. That indicates hummingbirds once enjoyed a much larger range and disappeared in the Old World for unknown reasons, the researchers said.
 
The discovery of fossils in Germany of the oldest known hummingbirds - 30 million years old - was announced in 2004.
 
“The fossil record for hummingbirds, and other small birds, is so poor that we really don't know when European hummingbirds disappeared. It could have been 30 million years ago, or it could have been a few thousand years ago,” Witt said.
 
The hummingbird evolutionary lineage split from a related group of small birds called swifts and treeswifts about 42 million years ago - most likely in Europe or Asia - and by 22 million years ago the ancestral species of modern hummingbirds was in South America, the researchers said.
 
Hummingbirds found their way to South America probably after crossing a land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska, the researchers said. Once in South America, they expanded into new ecological niches and evolved new species, then spread back to North America about 12 million years ago and into the Caribbean about five million years ago, the researchers said.
 
The biggest threat to hummingbirds is loss of habitat thanks to human activities. If people were not around, they “would just continue on their merry way evolving new species,” McGuire said.
 
The smallest species today, and the smallest bird in existence, is the bee hummingbird of Cuba, which measures about two inches long (five cm) and weighs 1.6 to 1.9 grams. The largest is the giant hummingbird of South America, which measures about eight inches (20 cm) and weighs about 20 grams.

You May Like

Hostage Crisis Could Divide Japan Over Plans to Boost Military

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is working closely with the Jordanian government to secure the release of remaining Japanese hostage Kenji Goto More

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Country's youngest ever PM Alexis Tsipras, 40, sworn in Monday and says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts More

Multimedia National Geographic Photo Camps Empower Youth

Annual mentoring program's mission is to give young people a voice to tell their own stories through photography More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid