47-Million-Year-Old Bird Fossil May Be Oldest Pollinator

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Pollen seeds found in the fossilized stomach of a tiny bird shows that birds and flowers have been linked for at least 47 million years.

Researchers discovered two types of seeds in the belly of the bird, called Pumiliornis tessellatus, plus nectar and insects. Finding the bird was a key way to confirm the likely presence of bird-pollinated plants, since other clues, such as red coloring and scent, vanish over time.

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“The presence of pollen not only offers direct evidence of the bird’s feeding habits, but shows that birds already visited flowers as long as 47 million years ago,” said researcher Volker Wilde, a paleobotanist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt.

“We don’t just have a fossil that can tell us about the birds,” said study lead author Gerald Mayr, an ornithologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. “We have a unique sign that tells us about the special ecosystem it lived in. There’s a bigger story that this single skeleton can tell.”

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The skeleton was found in an oil shale pit in Germany in 2012, and is the third Pumiliornis tessellatus ever found. It appears to have had a beak similar to a hummingbird’s, and four toes that it likely used to cling to branches while it sucked nectar.

Photo: The fossil bird from Messel with its revealing stomach contents (insert). Credit: Mayr et al

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