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
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
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,
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
"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.
[to top of second column]
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
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 2 inches long and
weighs 1.6 to 1.9 grams. The largest is the giant hummingbird of
South America, which measures about 8 inches and weighs about 20
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by James Dalgleish)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.