In 2004, Gerald Mayr , a palaeontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany, found himself confronted by two fossilised birds found in rocks in Fraunweiler, a village in southern Germany. Any fossilised bird is a thing of wonder, a window into a long-lost past when flight, leaving the bounds of the Earth, was still a relatively new innovation in the vertebrate world. But these birds on Mayr’s workbench were something more remarkable still… The birds were small – just four centimetres long, with bills two and half times the length of their skulls, and wing bones that looked just like the short, stocky humerus typical of modern-day hummingbirds. Mayr recognised them as just that, early hummingbirds, albeit ones found an ocean away from the family’s present global range in the Americas. South American hummingbird fossils found to date are relative youngsters, dating to just one million years ago – these fossils, and subsequent examples unearthed in Germany, Poland and France, are those ancient hummingbirds’ ancestors. Mayr duly named the Fraunweiler hummingbirds Eurotrochilus inexpectatus , or ‘unexpected European hummingbird’. A female Juan Fernández firecrown perches on a branch while a male attempts to impress her © Jon Dunn Anyone […]

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