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Fossil Spotlight

Fossil Spotlight: Pumiliornis, the Earliest Known Flower-Visiting Bird

Pumiliornis fossil; boxed area is the location of the pollen grains. Image from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsbl.2014.0223

Who: Pumiliornis tessellatus
Lagerstätte: Messel Pit in Germany
What: Pumiliornis is the oldest known flower-visiting bird in the fossil record at 47 million years old (Eocene Epoch). This is based on preserved pollen grains in its stomach! This strongly supports nectar-eating behavior further compounded by its beak which was long and likely flexible similar to hummingbirds. Fish and seeds have been found in birds stomach before, like the Jehol Biota in China, but pollen-finds are rarer and usually nectar-visiting behavior has to be inferred based on the fossil’s anatomy which can be difficult. Pumiliornis is not closely related to any known modern pollinators.

Close up of Pumiliornis stomach contents. Pollen grains circled. Image from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsbl.2014.0223

References
Mayr, Gerald, and Volker Wilde. “Eocene fossil is earliest evidence of flower-visiting by birds.” Biology Letters 10.5 (2014): 20140223.

O’Connor, Jingmai K., and Zhonghe Zhou. “The evolution of the modern avian digestive system: insights from paravian fossils from the Yanliao and Jehol biotas.” Palaeontology 63.1 (2020): 13-27.

By Andy

I'm a museum science educator with a passion for all things geek and natural science related!

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