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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.