By Joseph Castro, Live Science Contributor | May 27, 2014 07:08pm ET
Birds have been visiting and pollinating flowers for at least 47 million years, fossil evidence now suggests. The new find pushes back the onset of ornithophily, or bird pollination, by about 17 million years, researchers say.
To pollinate, most species of angiosperms (flowering plants) require assistance from animals, particularly insects and birds. Though research suggests that insects have been pollinating flowers since the early Cretaceous period, over 100 million years ago, the onset of ornithophily has long remained elusive. Previously, fossils of modern-type hummingbirds suggested ornithophily began as early as 30 million years ago, but this conclusion was only inferred indirectly from the birds' long beaks and presumed hovering capabilities.
However, researchers have now analyzed a well-preserved, 47-million-year-old fossil of the extinct bird Pumiliornis tessellatus, and found that the animal's stomach contents contain numerous angiosperm pollen grains. The discovery is the first direct fossil evidence of flower visitation by birds, and suggests that ornithophily is far older than previously believed.