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

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Video Empire State Building Highlights Cecil the Lion

People gathered in streets and rooftops in Manhattan to see the image highlights that covered 33 floors of the building More

World’s Widest Suspension Bridge Being Built Over Bosphorus

Once built, Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge will span 2 kilometers with about 1.5 kilometers over water, and will be longest suspension bridge in world carrying rail system More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs